A Missouri legislator filed a bill Monday to split the state’s water patrol division from the Highway Patrol, undoing a 2011 merger championed by Gov. Jay Nixon as a way to save money.
Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, said separating the two divisions would help restore the water patrol to the “top notch, nationally recognized” department it used to be. It also would restore the public’s trust and improve public safety on Missouri waterways, which have suffered since the merger, she said.
“I think it’s going to be hard, a difficult thing to do,” Franklin said Monday. “But it’s the right thing to do. ... We need to return to the days of a focused water patrol mission that is fully devoted and passionate for the water and law enforcement.”
Her announcement comes two weeks after a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the May 2014 drowning death of Brandon Ellingson.
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Trooper Anthony Piercy arrested Ellingson, 20, for operating a boat while intoxicated. He cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back and then placed a type of life vest on Ellingson that could not be secured for someone in handcuffs.
Ellingson fell from Piercy’s boat as the trooper transported him to a patrol field office. The life vest came off and Ellingson drowned. Piercy later said at a coroner’s inquest that he, an 18-year road trooper, hadn’t been trained for what he encountered on the water that day.
Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father, said Monday that the two patrols should never have been merged and need to be separated now. The state must focus again on water operations to improve safety, he said.
“They were good before, and Governor Nixon ruined it,” Ellingson said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t follow up on it and keep tabs. There was no accountability.
“If the merger never would have happened in the first place, Brandon would still be here.”
Efforts to reach the governor’s office for comment were not immediately successful. Capt. John Hotz, a patrol spokesman, said the Highway Patrol doesn’t comment on proposed legislation.
After Brandon Ellingson’s death, The Star investigated the merger and found a series of flaws and missteps. Not only did the merger not save money, it did not improve safety on some of Missouri’s most popular lakes and rivers.
The patrol didn’t implement a statewide training standard for road troopers who helped out on the lake. The Star discovered that some troopers, including Piercy, had just a few days of field training before they patrolled the water by themselves.
A special House committee, chaired by Franklin, held several hearings around the state in late 2014. The goal was to see how effective and efficient the merger was. Members questioned patrol officials about training and the number of troopers patrolling the waterways, as well as the cost of the merger.
Rep. Don Phillips, a Kimberling City Republican, was the committee’s vice chair. He’s also a retired trooper. He has maintained there was a lack of consistency in operations after the merger, especially in training.
“If they were as committed to the water as they were the road, there wouldn’t have been a need for the committee,” Phillips said Monday. “This would have been done right from the very beginning.”
The committee did not investigate Ellingson’s death or what went wrong that day. Franklin stated up front that the sole purpose of the hearings was to analyze the merger. A year ago, the committee released a report detailing flaws and recommending certain steps be taken, including in the area of training. Many of the recommendations have been implemented.
Rep. Rocky Miller, a Lake Ozark Republican, said that after listening to testimony during the hearings and talking with residents who live at the lake, there’s no question a change needs to be made now. After the merger, Miller said, the Highway Patrol made the water patrol “a shell of what it once was.”
“It would be a lie to say that the (Ellingson) case did not weigh into the decision,” Miller said of the proposal to divide the two patrol divisions. “But there were many other incidents that have proven to us that the merger was an abject failure.”
Patrolling the waterways “is not like pulling a car over on the highway,” said Miller, who is a co-sponsor of the bill along with Rep. David Wood, a Versailles Republican. “It’s different and needs to be treated differently. There needs to be separate training and separate administrations and a separate group entirely to make sure it’s done properly and safely.”
The legislation would remove from the Highway Patrol all the administrative functions, facilities and equipment used by the water patrol division. The administrative structure would go back to the way it was in 2010, before the merger.
Radio communications and technology systems, which have provided benefits for the water patrol since the merger, would be placed under the Department of Public Safety.
The proposal doesn’t include an estimated cost, but that will come soon, Franklin said.
She told The Star that she’s put much thought into the proposal and thinks Missouri must do more.
“There has to be someone in authority whose priority is the water,” she said. “At the end of the day, we can go on with this and being less than what we were.
“But why should we? Why shouldn’t we be better?”