By McKenzie Kane
Like law enforcement in many other places, Buena Vista’s police find themselves in the middle of tense family disputes with little training in diffusing the situations. But the department is addressing the issue with a grant from the state.
In November, the state Department of Criminal Justice Services awarded a $100,000 grant to Buena Vista as part of the Virginia STOP Violence Against Women Act.
Officer Jennifer Smith is the department’s new domestic violence investigator. She answers calls that involve disputes among family members and significant others.
Police Chief Wayne Handley and Assistant Chief Dave Clements knew they wanted to apply for the grant when they first heard about it.
“We came up with the idea of creating a whole position where that person would primarily be responsible for any reports or any instances that involve domestic violence,” Handley said. “That’s where Jen comes in.”
In 2023, BV police responded to 77 domestic violence-related calls, resulting in 36 arrests, according to the department. In 2022, there were 71 calls and 17 arrests. So far this year, there have been five calls and four arrests.
“Depending on the month, domestic assault may outpace the number of narcotic arrests that are made,” Handley said.
The chief said the calls often involve the same families. “They go from talking to hitting very quickly,” he said. “Those are the ones that we can kind of look to and say, ‘How do we prevent this from happening again?’”
Smith has 12 years of experience in policing in Norfolk, where Handley had served as chief of staff for the sheriff’s office until last year when he joined the Buena Vista department. Smith worked cases that included drugs, domestic and sexual assaults, and child abuse.
“I enjoy this line work,” she said. “These investigations mean a lot to me.”
Smith will be working closely with Project Horizon, a local organization dedicated to assisting people affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.
“We are very excited about the proactive stance of the Buena Vista Police Department,” said Project Horizon Executive Director Judy Casteel. “When [Smith] has cases, she’ll refer them to us. We’ll refer cases to her. So, there’ll be a lot of back and forth.”
Handley said the grant will allow the department to focus not only on domestic violence concerns but also other sexual violence crimes.
“We’re also looking at the possibility of branching out into investigations related to human trafficking, whether it’s human trafficking for sex work or human trafficking for labor,” Handley said. “With large interstate roadways that run right through the area, this is an easy one for us to look at and say we’re going to have a need.”