Government & Politics

After drowning of Brandon Ellingson, Missouri House committee to review merger of Water Patrol into Highway Patrol

A special Missouri House committee will look at the merger of the Highway Patrol with the water patrol after 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson drowned while in the custody of a state trooper.
A special Missouri House committee will look at the merger of the Highway Patrol with the water patrol after 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson drowned while in the custody of a state trooper. The Kansas City Star

Missouri lawmakers said Tuesday that a special committee would examine whether troopers patrolling state waterways have been properly trained.

Questions about training have mounted since the May 31 drowning of a handcuffed Iowa man while he was in the custody of a Missouri state trooper.

House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, said the new bipartisan committee would review the 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. It will gather information on how the patrol’s water division is now managed as well as scrutinize how much training troopers receive to work the water — both those assigned to waterways full time and part time. And it will determine whether the merger has been cost effective.

“We now have to question whether this merger has put our hard-working patrol officers in a position where they can effectively maintain the public’s safety on our waterways,” Jones said in a news release announcing the committee.

Three legislators from the Lake of the Ozarks area approached Jones’ office about the need for the committee after the May 31 death of Brandon Ellingson. Trooper Anthony Piercy, an 18-year road trooper who was starting his second season helping on the lake, arrested Ellingson for boating while intoxicated.

As Piercy transported Ellingson to a patrol zone office for a breath test, the college student went overboard. Divers recovered his body, with his hands cuffed behind his back, the next day.

“There’s no way in the world I can convince you that it didn’t spur us into action, because it did,” said Rep. Rocky Miller, a Republican from Lake Ozark, who was among the three legislators who wanted the review committee. “I am concerned about the training our water patrol officers receive.”

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, released a statement to The Star regarding Ellingson’s death. The man’s family of Clive, Iowa, has reached out to his office.

“Whenever a citizen dies while in the custody of law enforcement, it deserves to be closely reviewed by the appropriate authorities,” Grassley said. “That would include the Department of Justice, if it appears that any federal laws were broken.

“When the family provides me additional information, I’ll immediately bring it to the attention of the Justice Department so they can determine how best to proceed.”

Patrol officials have not weighed in on the family’s desire for federal authorities to get involved. But a patrol spokesman contacted Tuesday said that, as after all critical incidents, agency staff will review all policies and procedures to see whether they were followed or whether changes need to be made.

“I just spoke with the colonel, and he said we look forward to the opportunity to speak to the committee about all the aspects of the merger,” said Capt. Tim Hull, a spokesman for the patrol.

The merger of the two patrols in January 2011 has come under question since Ellingson’s death. In a story last month, The Star detailed how retired Water Patrol veterans worried shortly after the merger that training would be sacrificed.

Troopers assigned or transferred to the water full time after the merger received less field training than Water Patrol recruits did before the merger. Officers assigned to the water part time — troopers such as Piercy who primarily work Missouri’s roadways — are required to have just a fraction of the field training.

Several retired veterans interviewed by the newspaper said a lack of training and experience was a factor on May 31.

At a coroner’s inquest earlier this month, Piercy told six jurors that he thought he wasn’t properly trained for what he encountered that day. He said he didn’t know the difference between types of life jackets and wasn’t specifically taught to use one vest over the other during an arrest.

Piercy placed a Type III flotation device — a vest with armholes that cannot be secured on an already handcuffed person — on Ellingson. Soon after the young man went in the water, the vest came off. Piercy eventually jumped in the water to try to save Ellingson but was unable to do so.

“Evaluating this after the fact, I realize more training is definitely needed,” Piercy told jurors during the Morgan County coroner’s inquest. “Could I be a better marine operations officer? Yes. There are a lot of things I need to learn.”

At the time of the merger, Gov. Jay Nixon said it would save money — as much as $3 million a year — and increase efficiency. Officers assigned to water patrol could help on the highways during winter months, and road troopers would pitch in on the state’s lakes and rivers during peak boating seasons.

“We want to see that savings, where is it at, has it happened?” said Rep. David Wood, a Republican from Versailles. “Are we better off? Are we getting the coverage on the lake we need?”

Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, will chair the committee. She said that since the merger, many around the Lake of the Ozarks have expressed concerns that the patrolling wasn’t what it once was.

Now is the time, she said, to determine whether the patrol, and specifically the water division, are getting enough resources. And should the merger continue?

“We’ll determine where we need to go from here,” she said. “Do we need to go back to separating the two, or do they stay together with changes made?”

Ellingson’s family will be eager to see what comes from committee hearings, said Des Moines, Iowa, attorney Matt Boles.

“I think the citizens of Missouri deserve to know whether this was simply a campaign promise or if it resulted in real savings,” said Boles, who represents Ellingson’s estate and family. “Because the consequences are real, and that can be measured in the life that was lost in Brandon Ellingson.”

Nixon has yet to comment on Ellingson’s death in patrol custody or concerns that a lack of training played a role. He has not responded to questions from The Star. A Nixon spokesman did not respond to an email Tuesday.

“I would think he (Nixon) would be giving what his concerns are and how he would be addressing them,” Franklin said. “And be taking a second look perhaps at (the merger) — I guess we’re going to do that.”

The committee will begin holding hearings within a month.

“It’s not just smoke and mirrors,” Wood said. “We’re really looking to get answers to these questions of training, money and procedures.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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