Improper training of officers following Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s 2010 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol may be compromising public safety on state waterways.
The merger, which Nixon touted as an efficiency move, has come under scrutiny after the senseless drowning of a 20-year-old college student, Brandon Ellingson, on May 31 at the Lake of the Ozarks. Ellingson was handcuffed in a patrol boat on suspicion of handling a motor boat while intoxicated. He somehow ended up in the water and became separated from an ill-fitting life vest. Anthony Piercy, a veteran Highway Patrol trooper who last year began policing waterways part-time, had custody of Ellingson at the time.
As retired Water Patrol officers have told The Star, policing Missouri’s waterways is not the same as patrolling its highways. It takes months to understand the ways of lakes and rivers. Maneuvering in a boat is different than driving a cruiser or working on solid ground.
The Highway Patrol has not disclosed how much training Piercy received before he began policing waterways. But people familiar with the situation said that, as an officer working part-time on the lake, his field training may have been limited to just a few days.
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While much about Ellingson’s death remains unclear, including the circumstances under which he left the boat in deep water, it seems apparent that Piercy used a life vest that was not properly secured or appropriate for an already handcuffed person. A different kind of vest, designed to remain secure and provide enough buoyancy to keep one’s face out of water, was available on the boat.
The refusal by state officials to release more details about Ellingson’s drowning, or even to disclose training protocols, is unacceptable. A young man died needlessly on a Missouri waterway and the public deserves to know what went wrong.
There is ample reason for Missourians to be concerned that inexperienced and poorly trained officers may be policing the state’s busy waters.
This is another situation in which Nixon must stop dodging questions and visibly take ownership of a problem. He needs to re-evaluate his merger and insist that officers on the water and the roads be properly trained.