On patrol, an SRO brings experience

Monday, August 31, 2009
After eight years as an agent with the 17th Judicial District Drug and Violence Task Force, Billy Ostermann's job as school resource officer affords him nights off to attend the Nashville School of Law.

A spaced-out student at Marshall County High School needed attention recently and the faculty turned to the school resource officer.

"The student had taken some sort of prescription drug and was intoxicated," Officer Billy Ostermann said. "They asked me to talk with him and he said he was 'just tired.'

Ostermann didn't believe it.

"I asked him, 'Do you know where I've been working since you were in second grade?'"

As a narcotics officer with the 17th Judicial District Drug and Violence Task Force, Ostermann has taken hundreds of cases to court annually, but his experience with that slice of life is, for the most part, behind him now.

The troubled teen denied his condition, as was expected by the officer, who saw through the ruse and realized the boy is probably a rare case.

"The few kids who might be involved in that know enough to not bring it to school" because of the "zero tolerance" policy of one strike and you're out of school, Ostermann said.

So, given the prospect of such, regardless of the chances, he's there with skills and experience far beyond that of a rookie.

"The kind of people who work in schools don't know what a junkie looks like, or a crack head," he said. Staff and faculty know what's taught on the subject but, he said, "The majority don't have real world experience.

"Hopefully, I won't have to do that much here," he said.

Some of his police work includes some basic things like traffic control. Halls are crowded between classes, especially where they cross, so practical, almost dull solutions work.

More time between classes was one step. Another was reassigning lockers to students who had them close to the intersections so that people walking in crowds like those on a New York City sidewalk have more room. The solution was time and space, but it wasn't physics, or as complicated and secretive as managing a confidential informant.

"It's completely different," Ostermann said of his new job "The bad kids don't really bother me in terms of stressing me out, in terms of not being able to handle the wild kids. But for the most part, it's been relatively quiet considering the number of students we have and we're in the third week of school."

MCHS has 854 students enrolled. That's about 100 more than last year.

Preventive enforcement is a tactic to maintain order and safety for students.

"For example," he said, "in the cafeteria, they have to stay seated. It virtually eliminates fights" by reducing the number of contacts students have with each other.

"It's good to have a certified officer with arrest powers on-site," he said. "If anything happens here, I can go to court instead of the administrators" who don't necessarily know how to prosecute or process a juvenile petition asking that a child to be declared delinquent.

Other SROs have experience in court and SRO assignments might be seen as an entry job for a career of police work, but an SRO can be an adviser, a confidant and someone who cares enough to save those in trouble.

"I've had a number of students asking about getting with a law enforcement agency," Ostermann said. He's been asked about careers with the FBI, TBI and DEA. The federal agencies are "good if you're willing to relocate." He isn't.

Ostermann started with the Marshall County Sheriff's Department in 2001. After graduating from the police academy, he had specialized training to be ready for the task force.

After eight years as a narcotics officer, he says, "Looking back, it seems like a long time. I miss it some times, but not to the point where I regret leaving.

"I'm getting ready to start law school," Ostermann said.

Once known, casually, as the YMCA night law school, the Nashville School of Law has gained respect. It's been seen as a plum for acquisition by universities, but its alumni and administrators -- and influential friends like judges and prosecutors -- have kept it independent.

Ostermann's classes at the school -- designed to be the working man's law school -- will be at night.

"When I found out the SRO position came open, it was a perfect fit," he said. "There's no conflict" with his duties at MCHS.

It's actually better, since high school lets out before most adults' quitting time.

Since Ostermann has been a Sheriff's Department employee on loan to the task force, his pay under the civil service system hasn't changed with his new job, although, he said, "I took a benefits cut, just from some of the things I had on the task force."

As a narcotics officer, he was afforded training to keep him current on various aspects of pharmacology and offender tastes. He also had a take-home, unmarked vehicle and now only drives a patrol car while on duty and in uniform. He was on-call 24/7 as a narcotics officer, but now his clothes -- a uniform and related gear -- are provided.

"The uniform is a benefit," he said.

There are other benefits like less stress, he's home before his kids are in bed and previously "coaching my oldest son's football team was never an option."