A merger of two state patrols was billed as smart government, a way to save taxpayer money and put more officers on Missouri’s waterways. People would be safer.
Only they aren’t. No money was saved, and promises were broken.
Nearly four years after state legislators merged the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol, many residents report seeing fewer officers patrolling rivers and lakes. They describe some, including the Niangua River and the Lake of the Ozarks, as more dangerous.
“It all boils down to the ball was dropped in the merger,” Rep. Rocky Miller, a Republican from Lake Ozark, said Thursday. “It’s been screwed up totally.… And I want it fixed.”
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Since a young Iowa man drowned in handcuffs May 31 while in the custody of Anthony Piercy, a veteran highway trooper, The Star has fought for records that revealed a litany of mistakes he made that day. The newspaper has explored Piercy’s lack of training, the way his account of Brandon Ellingson’s death changed and how information was withheld from jurors at a coroner’s inquest.
The jury decided Ellingson’s death was an accident, and a prosecutor determined Piercy should not face criminal charges.
Now, a deeper examination of the 2011 merger — which ultimately put Piercy on the water — shows it failed to do what legislators intended. Instead, it removed full-time veteran Water Patrol officers in key locations and jeopardized safety on Missouri’s busiest waterways.
Missteps by Highway Patrol leaders in merging the agencies — revealed in the newspaper’s investigation and discussed in hearings of a special House committee — have increased scrutiny of the Highway Patrol. Consider:
▪ Instead of saving money, combining the patrols has cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year, according to a state audit.
▪ In the months before the merger, Highway Patrol leaders ignored several recommendations from Water Patrol managers on how to train highway troopers to work state waterways. The agency cut standards in swimming requirements, taking away a pass/fail test that the Water Patrol had used for decades.
▪ After the two agencies merged, the Highway Patrol dismantled the water division within the first year. That left water enforcement to the nine commanders of Highway Patrol troops across the state who, on their own, set standards for field training — a key element in preparing a highway trooper to work on the water.
▪ Even today, a pervasive “us versus them” atmosphere undercuts the entire agency’s effectiveness.
Gov. Jay Nixon supported the idea of joining the two departments, an idea his office said came from a Missouri Senate Rebooting Government initiative in early 2010.
“And he continues to support the merger now that it has been in effect for almost four years,” said Scott Holste, a Nixon spokesman.
The governor promoted it as an efficient way to save the state about $3 million a year.
It hasn’t. In fact, the state is paying as much as $900,000 more a year.
Nine months after the merger went into effect in 2011, State Auditor Tom Schweich released that finding. He said though the state saved money by cutting support staff and terminating the lease of a building, the state had to pay nearly $1.8 million more in increased retirement and health care costs — the result of bringing many former Water Patrol personnel onto the more costly plans used by the Highway Patrol.
At a recent hearing of the House committee, a business owner along the Niangua River told committee members that he’d been waiting to hear about all the cost savings they were promised.
“I know for a fact there’s not been a dime saved,” replied Rep. Don Phillips, a retired Highway Patrol officer. “And I don’t think there will ever be a dime saved.”
Nixon — who declined an interview request — indicated in early 2011 that eventually highway troopers would be trained to help out on the water. Yet only about 100 of the roughly 1,000 road troopers have been to marine operations school.
The governor also vowed at the time that the state wouldn’t lose any officers on the highways or waterways after the merger. However, on the Lake of the Ozarks alone, staffing went from 22 full-time water patrol officers in 2010 to 12 this past summer, documents show.
And though several part-time officers regularly help patrol the Lake of the Ozarks during peak boating seasons, veteran officers say the vast lake was covered by just one trooper on more than one afternoon this summer.
What hurts staffing on the water even more is that since the merger, officers typically don’t work shifts longer than eight hours. Before the merger, the Water Patrol routinely had officers work shifts of 12 hours or longer during the busy summer months. To make up for the long shifts, they took more time off in the winter.
“The merger was sold to us that we’d have available additional troops in the summertime,” said retired Water Patrol Capt. Bill Cox. “I honestly thought it was going to be a partnership.… I don’t know if we were sold a bill of goods, but …”
The Highway Patrol’s top leader, Col. Ronald Replogle, defends the merger, saying trained, top-notch officers work all waterways across Missouri. The efficiencies are numerous, he said, including more troopers under one command to respond to natural disasters and the recent civil unrest in Ferguson.
“I’ve seen officers make boating-while-intoxicated arrests early in their shift, then get a DWI arrest at the end,” Replogle testified in early October. “Those are things that really can’t be measured by the dollar.”
That argument doesn’t sway many residents and business owners along some of the busiest state waterways. In the 50 years of the Water Patrol, they said, you could feel the presence of officers. At the Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake, officers educated boaters, often issuing warnings and guidance instead of tickets.
On rivers, officers would patrol regularly in jet boats, even hiding out in brush at times to make sure canoeists were following the rules. Many residents who testified at the House hearings said that now they’re lucky to ever see an officer on regular patrol, and not just responding to emergency calls.
“We were told more officers would be available on the Niangua River,” said Johnnie Burns, who with his father, Bob, runs NRO Canoe Rental. “We were told there would be a helicopter in the air, and I saw one that first year. But the only helicopters I’ve seen since then are the ones that come in, land and pick up people hurt on the river.”
Many worry injuries and other problems will only increase.
“This last season was one of the most violent — there have been shootings, altercations,” said Michelle Lambeth, executive director of the Missouri Canoe & Floaters Association. “We are seeing less families, and Scout troops more and more try to float through the week.
“We must make public safety on the water a priority again, just like on the ground.”
Brandon Ellingson’s father agrees. Craig Ellingson sat through the coroner’s inquest into his son’s drowning. He attended two of the five House hearings. He and Brandon’s mother, Sherry Ellingson, want someone held accountable for the death of their only son, who would have turned 21 today.
“This was about training — they didn’t train their officers,” Craig Ellingson said. Referring to the savings Nixon said the merger would bring, he added: “I lost my son and that’s worth way more than $3 million.”
“They didn’t listen”
Months before Water Patrol officers traded in their brown uniforms for Highway Patrol blue, officials with both agencies discussed training. Meetings were held and recommendations drawn up.
Replogle told The Star that members of the two staffs met shortly after Nixon announced the merger idea March 10, 2010, less than two weeks after Replogle was named colonel.
“Incumbent Water Patrol officers from the merger were very involved in setting up policy, procedure and training,” he said.
But according to information the Highway Patrol provided the newspaper, several recommendations submitted to the agency before the merger weren’t adopted, including swimming standards and field training requirements.
Nine members of the Water Patrol’s training division met in June 2010, according to patrol documents, and suggested requirements that highway troopers would need to meet to work for the water division:
▪ Five weeks of academy training and classes.
▪ A four- to eight-week mentoring program, similar to field training, for troopers to learn their patrol area and get comfortable operating a boat.
▪ As for swimming, the Water Patrol members recommended a three-part test: Swim 300 yards in 10 minutes or less, tread water for 10 minutes and dive to a depth of 12 feet to recover an object. If troopers couldn’t pass the test, they couldn’t patrol on the water.
The group also suggested that an internship program be used to give highway troopers a taste of working on the water to know if they’d want to do it.
Only the use of the internship program was adopted, according to testimony given to legislators and documents obtained by The Star.
“They didn’t listen to us,” said a former Water Patrol officer, who didn’t want his name used for fear of retribution by the Highway Patrol. “It’s like they thought they knew better.”
Retired Lt. Eldon Wulf, formerly of the Water Patrol, helped train highway troopers to work on the water after the two agencies joined.
The Highway Patrol didn’t want a pass/fail swimming test that would wash troopers out of the program, Wulf said. So troopers instead took another evaluation, the Cooper Swim Test, that required only that they swim for 12 minutes.
Information obtained by The Star shows that of the 88 troopers who went through the first three classes of marine operations training, 47 initially were considered poor or very poor swimmers by the Cooper standard. After the classes, which emphasized stroke development, that improved.
But the Highway Patrol continued water training for 18 troopers who remained poor or very poor swimmers even after the classes, according to the information the newspaper obtained.
“Why was the Water Patrol recommendation not followed?” Wulf asked at a hearing in mid-November. “Was it arrogance? Not wanting to be told what to do by the Water Patrol?”
Contacted about the recommendations, and why they all weren’t accepted, a patrol spokesman said the agency would have no comment.
Whatever the reason, legislators analyzing the merger’s effectiveness say the state hasn’t done enough to properly prepare troopers to patrol in a boat.
“I’m telling you, the training is not there, guys,” Phillips, a Republican from Kimberling City, told the committee last week at a hearing in St. Joseph. “It’s just not. We have to make sure everyone working the water knows how to swim and has been adequately tested for that.”
Their own kingdoms
Another discarded recommendation applied to field training, a phase where troopers apply on the water what they’ve learned in class. In the former Water Patrol, field training lasted at least two months.
Once marine operations were transferred to the individual troops — which some from the Water Patrol insist was in direct contradiction to what legislators intended when they passed the merger bill — commanders were responsible for marine operations in their area.
“We basically divided the mission of the Water Patrol up into nine troops,” testified Capt. Matt Walz, who is assigned to Troop F in the Lake of the Ozarks area and is a veteran of the Water Patrol. “And each of those troops decided how often those officers patrolled the waterways, and what field training road officers would receive before working the water.”
Added another officer: “Each troop became their own kingdom.”
What that meant was a trooper in one part of the state might get two weeks of field training, while another in a different troop would get just two days.
At the Lake of the Ozarks, Walz came up with a post-merger plan calling for as much as 40 days of field training. His workbook and guide were intended for all highway troopers who would work on the water, full or part time. A checklist was designed to make sure troopers knew how to operate a boat in rough waters, conduct stops and make arrests for boating while intoxicated.
Since the merger, only one trooper at the Lake of the Ozarks had completed the field training guide prior to Ellingson’s death. Troopers volunteering to work the lake part time were not required to complete it.
When The Star asked the Highway Patrol for an accounting of the field training that troopers received before they started working the state’s waters, the patrol did not provide the information. But at the state’s two busiest lakes — Table Rock and the Lake of the Ozarks — highway troopers working part time on the water had just days of field training, according to testimony at the House hearings.
Said Sgt. Terry Sanders, who worked for the Water Patrol before the merger and now oversees marine operations enforcement on Table Rock Lake: “There has to be a set policy across the state.”
“Asking for disaster”
If a highway trooper had a personal boat and had spent time on the lake, the patrol figured he or she was good for duty, said Jody Hughes, a retired Highway Patrol captain who was with the Water Patrol for 31 years.
“But fishing and being a water patrolman doing enforcement are two different things,” Hughes said. “When you have to go to a call, you have to know the lake. They’re just asking for disaster and tragic incidents to happen.”
No greater tragedy has occurred than the drowning of Ellingson while he was in Piercy’s custody.
Piercy, a veteran highway trooper with a reputation as a “DWI guy,” went through the second class of marine operations training in March 2013. The patrol’s records division provided documents showing that after that course, Piercy received just two days of field training before he was signed off to patrol the lake by himself.
The initial goal of the water-trained highway trooper, especially at the busy Lake of the Ozarks, was to be visible and add to staffing on big weekends. Not to do heavy enforcement.
Before long, though, Piercy started making boating-while-intoxicated arrests, and a superior challenged him to keep the arrests coming.
On May 31, the day Piercy arrested Ellingson, the trooper first handcuffed Ellingson’s wrists behind his back and then pulled an already buckled Type III life vest, with armholes, over his head and upper torso, according to witnesses. The vest, which wasn’t properly secured, came off shortly after Ellingson tumbled into the water from Piercy’s boat.
Piercy later testified at a coroner’s inquest that he realized he should have had more training.
He isn’t the only inadequately trained officer who has worked on Missouri waters. Documents obtained by The Star show that more troopers didn’t finish the required courses before patrolling the water.
A sergeant in southwest Missouri completed only two weeks of a four-week school before working the water.
And in the same troop where Piercy works, another highway trooper was on the Lake of the Ozarks without adequate training less than two weeks before Ellingson’s death.
On May 19, that trooper arrested a Camdenton man for boating while intoxicated on the lake’s Big Niangua arm just before 9 p.m.
The trooper had not been signed off to patrol the lake and hadn’t completed his field training or the marine operations school. The road sergeant with him also hadn’t been to marine operations training.
The trooper and sergeant were supposed to be practicing docking maneuvers that evening, but went down the lake several miles and made the arrest on their way back.
“They weren’t supposed to be out there on patrol,” a former Water Patrol officer said.
The two called another full-time marine operations officer to assist with the arrest.
Us versus them
Within months of getting uniforms with the Highway Patrol patch sewn on, former Water Patrol officers and managers were trained to work the road. On top of four weeks of classes, each received about four weeks of field training.
And it wasn’t just officers. Everyone from the Water Patrol, including captains and majors, had to attend road school. Most lieutenants and higher-ranking officers had to have a minimum of two weeks of field training on the road. The rationale: They might end up supervising highway troopers.
But Highway Patrol commanders, lieutenants and sergeants were not required to have comparable training on water enforcement.
“It’s arrogance,” said a former Water Patrol officer, referring to Highway Patrol managers and commanders. The officer didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution. “They decided, ‘Our guys don’t need to go through any more training.’”
Said another officer: “Their thought was if you can drive a car, you can drive a boat.”
Legislators analyzing the merger have recognized the inconsistency. At the first hearing, the Highway Patrol acknowledged that of the commanders leading the state’s nine troops, none has received marine operations training.
When it came to cross-training, “there was no accountability for road, but there was for water,” said Rep. Diane Franklin, chairwoman of the House committee. “I just don’t really understand why that would be.
“Public law enforcement is all about being able to respond appropriately to the situation, whatever it may be, land or water. And without the appropriate training or amount of training, that cannot be done.”
Solving the problems
Franklin vented her frustration about the merger at a committee hearing last month.
“The Highway Patrol didn’t want this,” she said. “The Water Patrol didn’t want this.… Why did it happen?”
For two months, her committee has listened to Highway Patrol officials defend the merger, saying they’ve done their best to iron out any wrinkles.
“When someone says we don’t care, we do care,” said Capt. Juan Villanueva, commander of Troop D in southwest Missouri. “And we want to make sure we do the job right.”
Others — including many former Water Patrol managers, two county sheriffs, a county commissioner and many lake residents — have railed against the merger. In their testimony, each started by declaring respect for the Highway Patrol, then gave examples of how safety and service had been jeopardized.
“It’s evident it’s not working,” Stone County Commissioner Jerry Dodd told legislators. “And it’s probably ruined some people’s lives with the tragedy at Lake of the Ozarks.… There are times when we have to change things back.”
But at least one committee member thinks the aftermath of the merger has been portrayed much worse than it really is.
Rep. Marsha Haefner, a Republican from St. Louis, said she thought that much of the testimony “was from disgruntled employees who didn’t like the change, didn’t want the merger.”
And, she said, the training program for troopers to work the water was “put in place” by officials with the Water Patrol.
Franklin interrupted: “But not followed.”
Before Haefner’s comments Thursday, at the panel’s last hearing on the merger, committee members heard from Highway Patrol officials from Troop H. That troop covers an area in northwest Missouri that includes part of Smithville Lake and major responsibilities on the Missouri River.
Law enforcement across that area — including the patrol, St. Joseph police and the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department — said the merger there was seamless.
“The services provided continued to be as smooth as can be,” said Buchanan County Sheriff Mike Strong. Others echoed that.
The real trouble, legislators agreed, is on the more populated waterways in central and southwest Missouri.
The legislative committee has begun forming recommendations. Members plan to meet with Highway Patrol leaders in a week or two and hope to have a final report to the House speaker by the end of the year.
Changes in training are on the table, from stronger swimming standards to a statewide policy on field training. Among other possibilities: restoring a separate water division within the Highway Patrol, or undoing the merger altogether.
“We get less service and less proficiency,” Franklin said. “Let’s stop pointing fingers and say, ‘How do we solve this?’”