Lawmakers say Missouri Highway Patrol has taken steps since 2014 drowning

The Missouri Highway Patrol is investigating an early morning boat crash on May 19, 2018, on Lake of the Ozarks.
The Missouri Highway Patrol is investigating an early morning boat crash on May 19, 2018, on Lake of the Ozarks.

Nearly 18 months after the drowning of a handcuffed Iowa man at the Lake of the Ozarks highlighted a lack of training inside the Missouri Highway Patrol, changes have been made.

Several patrol commanders told a legislative committee on Wednesday that they have followed recommendations handed down in January. Those cover everything from how much training troopers receive before they patrol on the water to how well they can swim.

Last fall, the special House committee held several public hearings to review the effectiveness and efficiency of the 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. In January, the committee released a final report outlining nine recommendations the patrol needed to make to correct flaws created by the merger.

“I feel they have made good progress,” Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican and committee chair, said Wednesday. “They are headed in the right direction.”

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Among the changes already adopted inside Missouri’s water patrol division:

▪ Increased swimming standards. Before troopers work the water, they must pass the American Red Cross open water lifeguard swim standard. This includes swimming 550 yards continuously, treading water for two minutes and a timed swimming test that includes diving and retrieving a 10-pound object. After the merger, troopers were required to swim only 12 minutes, and there was no pass/fail element.

▪ Swimming recertification each year.

▪ Required field training of 40 days. A portion of that time will be working alongside an experienced marine operations trooper, and some days they will be by themselves with nearby supervision. After the merger, there wasn’t a standard, statewide field training requirement.

The committee’s investigation began one year ago amid a series of stories by The Star that exposed mistakes made the day Brandon Ellingson drowned. The newspaper also uncovered missteps by the patrol in its handling of the merger, including a failure to extensively train some highway troopers to help on the water.

During hearings last year, committee members heard from frustrated business owners and residents who live along state waterways. On Wednesday, a few told the committee life still isn’t good.

Before the hearing and update from patrol commanders, legislators from the lake area heard a litany of concerns about wake zones, property damage and a perceived lack of patrol presence on the water.

“The lake is out of control,” resident Max Fisher told legislators. “More people are leaving the lake because they don’t like what they are seeing on the water.”

Fisher spoke at one of the hearings last year and said he doesn’t think anything has changed. He put his home in Camden County, where he thought he would live through his retirement, up for sale in July.

But others told the full committee that some residents and business owners are seeing more patrol presence and communication along some rivers and streams since last summer.

Michelle Lambeth, executive director of the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association, said outfitters in the west region of the state are seeing increased visibility and rated their satisfaction at 85 percent.

In the east region, though, satisfaction came in at 62 percent.

“Several outfitters reported never seeing a patrol officer this season,” Lambeth told the committee.

The focus on the water division came immediately after Ellingson’s death.

Trooper Anthony Piercy arrested the 20-year-old on May 31, 2014, and was taking him to a zone office for a breath test when the college student fell from the patrol boat, which had reached speeds of up to 46 mph during the transport. Once Ellingson was in the water, the life vest that Piercy put on him came off and Ellingson eventually drowned.

Piercy was a veteran road trooper who was helping out on the water. He told a jury at a coroner’s inquest that, in retrospect, he hadn’t been adequately trained for what he encountered that day.

The Star discovered that Piercy had only two days of field training before he was cleared to patrol the Lake of the Ozarks alone in June 2013.

At Wednesday’s hearing, legislators said they could see how far the patrol had come — especially with training, which was a key committee concern.

“I appreciate what you’ve done,” Rep. Don Phillips told Col. Bret Johnson, patrol superintendent.

Phillips, a Kimberling City Republican, is the committee’s vice chair and a retired trooper.

“I think you’ve listened to what this committee had to say.”

Johnson responded: “Loud and clear.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

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