CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Police came under criticism for failing to keep apart warring white nationalists and counter-protesters who battled it out in the city streets on Saturday amid what at first seemed an anemic response from authorities.
Anger over the how police responded came from all directions and intensified after the deaths of a woman struck by a car that plowed into a group of counter protesters. Experts said police appeared outnumbered, ill-prepared and inexperienced.
‘‘The worst part is that people got hurt and the police stood by and didn’t do a goddamn thing,’’ said David Copper, 70, of Staunton, Va., after an initial morning melee at a park that when unchecked by police for several minutes.
Fourteen people were injured in clashes; nine others were hurt in the car crash. Later, two Virginia State Police troopers were killed when their helicopter smashed into trees at the edge of town and burst into flames. The loss of police officers only compounded the calamity on a day that pushed police, city officials and residents to their limits.
Cable news replayed a seemingly endless loop of the early violence at Emancipation Park, where police in riot gear had surrounded the expanse on three sides, though seemed to watch as groups beat each other with sticks and bludgeoned one another with shields. Many on both sides came dressed for battle, with helmets and chemical irritants.
Police appeared at one point to retreat and then watch the beatings before eventually moving in to end the free-for-all, make arrests and tend the injured. The governor declared a state of emergency around 11 a.m. and activated the National Guard.
‘‘The whole point is to have overwhelming force so that people don’t get the idea they can do these kinds of things and get away with it,’’ said Charles Ramsey, who headed both the District of Columbia and Philadelphia police departments. Demonstrators and counter demonstrators ‘‘need to be in sight and sound of each other but somebody has to be in between,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s usually the police.’’
Complicating the dynamics was the fact that several dozen groups of armed militia — men in full camouflage toting assault-style weapons — were in the middle of the crowds. Some claimed that they were there to keep the peace, although none were seen trying to stop the skirmishes.
Cornel West, the Princeton professor and writer who attended a morning church service at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville with a large group of clergy members, said ‘‘the police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy.’’ West said that ‘‘if it hadn’t been for the anti fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.’’
Richard Spencer, the white nationalist and one of the leaders of the rally, said police failed to protect groups with which he is affiliated. ‘‘We came here as a demonstration of our movement,’’ Spencer said. ‘‘And we were effectively thrown to the wolves.’’ The police, he said, ‘‘did not protect us.’’
Local and state authorities declined to address specific questions about how the demonstration was handled or their strategy for the day. The city’s mayor, police chief, city manager, and Governor Terry McAuliffe also did not answer questions at an early evening news conference.
Thomas, the police chief, said only that the city will be ‘‘reviewing events of the day over coming weeks and months.’’
McAuliffe thanked law enforcement and noted that ‘‘this could have been a much worse day today.’’ He put the blame squarely on the white nationalists ‘‘who came here to hurt people.’’ He added, without mentioning a specific incident, ‘‘And you did hurt people.’’
Lieutenant Joseph Hatter, a commander with the Charlottesville Police, said officers tried to create separate areas for protesters and counter protesters to ‘‘reduce the violence.’’ But, he conceded, ‘‘It didn’t work, did it? I think there was a plan to have them separated. They didn’t want to be separated.’’
About the apparent delay in reacting to the violence, Hatter said, ‘‘I don’t know that we did wait. I think we did the best we could under the circumstances.’’ He declined to elaborate.
State Delegate David Toscano, a Charlottesville Democrat and the minority leader of Virginia’s House, praised the response by Charlottesville and state police.
‘‘Things were getting out of hand in the skirmishes between the alt-right and what I would describe as the outside agitators who wanted to encourage violence,’’ he said.
Asked why police did not intervene sooner, Toscano said he could not comment. He said they trained hard to prepare for the demonstration ‘‘and it might have been that they were waiting for a more effective time to get people out”of the park.
Experts on handling large demonstrations said authorities in Charlottesville are likely not as prepared for such events, which occur with more regularity in cities such as New York and Washington. They also said that separating antagonists is paramount.
‘‘Big cities handle this stuff all the time,’’ said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor in New York City. ‘‘It seems an enormous stretch for Charlottesville and even for the state police.’’
O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that ‘‘planning on paper can vaporize pretty quickly’’ and ‘‘many police think that if you do nothing, it’s less bad than if you do something. . . . Police departments need learn to strike a balance and create safe zones for people preaching hate.’’
But he also said that too often the police are faulted for the poor choices of others.
‘‘When people run amok and cause damage, people blame the police,’’ O’Donnell said. ‘‘When police act proactively, they get blamed for overreaching. People ask, ‘Why weren’t you more patient’?’’