There are times when the public can show too much respect for the police. The sad case of Rawiri Falwasser, who was pepper-sprayed and hit with batons while a camera was running at the Whakatane police station, is one.

Four officers repeatedly assailed him as he stood behind bars and Perspex in a holding cell, injuring his head, arms and face and overwhelming him with the contents of five cans of spray.

Shamefully, the same officers decided to charge their victim with assaulting them, but dropped that once the real story began to emerge.

His family complained; police from outside Whakatane investigated and they determined that the four should face criminal charges of assault with a weapon. So bad was the visual evidence from the station's CCTV camera that the outside investigators considered whether torture charges should be laid. The police hierarchy also laid internal disciplinary charges against the four.

So far, so good. The police erred badly in the original attack, but their processes emphatically accepted the wrong and acted on it.

It is at this point that the public - through the jury trial - let the police down. It has become the accepted view that public regard for the police is falling and that is one reason for a series of attacks on officers in the field. Some, including the Police Minister and national headquarters, take that view to an illogical further step, blaming media coverage of police failings for the suggested drop in respect.

Yet the Falwasser case illustrates that many members of the public are willing to accept almost any behaviour of police officers with equanimity. The Tauranga jury that sat on the criminal case declared the Whakatane Four not guilty on all charges. The jurors did not hear from the officers themselves, as they chose not to testify.

So, rejecting the prosecution case that had been put together by other police officers and approved by the Crown Solicitor was a remarkable achievement. Particularly when the video evidence was not just suggestive but incontrovertible.

The officers walked away, two to ultimately resign and one to be demoted, and two given written warnings. They were saved from rightful criminal conviction for group violence by a public which is capable of bending over backwards to believe the police need to do whatever it takes so "good guys" can prevail over the "bad".

Mr Falwasser's case has now resulted in a report from the Independent Police Conduct Authority, which finds the four officers' actions "unnecessary, unreasonable and unjustified". It vindicates the police department, though, for its investigation, the bringing of criminal charges and the laying of internal disciplinary charges. Police actions were "justified and appropriate".

The authority's report says it has no jurisdiction to review verdicts of the court, which in this case is a pity given the clear injustice at the district court. However, it goes without saying that the authority's investigators back the view of the police and the Crown Solicitor about the illegality of what occurred.

The IPCA process might be regarded within the police with suspicion but not on the evidence of its work in this case or other prominent inquiries. If any one thing can improve public respect for the police, it is probably this body in shining a light into the few dark corners of the police organisation.

Over time, as the police are shown warts and all to the public, people who unthinkingly side with the power of the state over the individual may have cause to open their minds. The public and the media have a role in standing against police wrongs, alerting the appropriate authorities as the family of Rawiri Falwasser did, so that good can really prevail.