Government & Politics

Safety on Missouri waterways at stake with proposal to undo merger of state patrols

Almost six years ago, Gov. Jay Nixon (on boat, holding bar) was at the Lake of the Ozarks to sign a bill making the state’s Water Patrol a division of the Highway Patrol. But critics have said the merger created many problems, and the General Assembly is considering a bill to undo the action and make the Water Patrol again a separate safety force.
Almost six years ago, Gov. Jay Nixon (on boat, holding bar) was at the Lake of the Ozarks to sign a bill making the state’s Water Patrol a division of the Highway Patrol. But critics have said the merger created many problems, and the General Assembly is considering a bill to undo the action and make the Water Patrol again a separate safety force. The Associated Press

From where Jerry Dodd sits in southwest Missouri, the merger of two state patrols five years ago didn’t work. A flawed experiment, really.

The Stone County commissioner watched experienced Water Patrol officers retire early because they didn’t want to work as Highway Patrol troopers. He continues to hear complaints from residents and business owners about fewer troopers on Table Rock Lake. And some party spots are getting new life because of a lack of law enforcement presence.

“Times change, and I understand that,” said Dodd, who has been a commissioner for 16 years. “But I feel the lake was a safer place when they had the Water Patrol by itself.”

Several legislators whose districts include the state’s most popular waterways have questioned the merger. Residents in their home districts say that instead of seeing more troopers and resources, they see less. And now everyone waits to see whether legislation to split the two patrols will catch hold.

Rep. Diane Franklin, who led a special House committee that analyzed the merger and whether it was effective and efficient, called last month for a return to a focused Water Patrol mission. She filed the legislation in January to dismantle the merger and has spent the weeks since talking with other legislators, residents and patrol commanders.

“There has to be someone in authority whose priority is the water,” she said after she filed the bill.

City leaders and residents around the Lake of the Ozarks said the committee’s work has improved training and increased patrols in the past year. But too often, they say, troopers are only able to respond to calls for service and don’t have a regular, visible presence on the water.

“It’s fairly simple,” said Ron Clarke, city clerk of Laurie, a community that includes the Gravois Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. “Most of the people in the lake area thought the Water Patrol covered the lake better than the Highway Patrol after it merged.”

Since the merger in January 2011, the number of arrests for boating while intoxicated has plummeted by 61 percent, according to the Highway Patrol, from 344 in 2010 to 134 last year.

     

 

Troop F, which includes the Lake of the Ozarks, recorded 138 BWI arrests in the first year of the merger. Last year: 68.

Franklin’s proposal lacks support with some in Jefferson City, especially with the governor, who promoted the merger as a way to save taxpayer money. And despite the move actually costing as much as $900,000 more each year, Gov. Jay Nixon has called the merger a success.

“This is what we did six years ago with very thoughtful people,” he told reporters soon after Franklin filed the proposal in January. “We were working toward not only a unified command and unified ability to put resources there, but also to dramatically augment what was a very limited Water Patrol. You had about 100 officers is all.”

It’s crucial, Nixon said, to have the additional strength for both patrols. Splitting them up would be a mistake, he said.

Mayor John McNabb of Camdenton disagrees. He wrote a letter supporting Franklin’s proposal and said residents worry that people will think the lake is less safe than it once was.

That could affect not only the local economy but that of the state, McNabb said.

“(Nixon’s) not living it. He’s not here on the water in the summertime,” McNabb said. “He needs to listen to the people who are actually involved.”

All about the presence

When the patrols merged, commanders said the transition would be seamless and the only real change would be the color of Water Patrol uniforms.

For several months, that appeared true. Businesses and residents near state lakes and rivers saw continued coverage on the water. Along the Niangua River, some even saw the patrol’s helicopter overhead.

But then residents say they started to see fewer troopers on the water. That complaint continues to echo five years later. If someone calls for assistance, many insist, it could be a lengthy time before a marine operations trooper shows up.

“I have complaints almost weekly,” said Rep. David Wood, a Versailles Republican and a co-sponsor of Franklin’s proposal. “They say, ‘We call the Water Patrol after we see issues and it’s two to three hours before they get here and the problem has gone away.’ 

In January 2015, the House committee released a final report outlining several recommendations for the patrol to correct flaws created by the merger. Among those recommendations was increased training for troopers who work the water. That additional training included higher swim standards and requiring troopers to have extensive field training before they patrol the water alone.

Training became a focal point after the May 31, 2014, death of Brandon Ellingson. The 20-year-old Iowa man was pulled over on the Gravois Arm for suspicion of boating while intoxicated. Trooper Anthony Piercy, who had been on the road 18 years, had volunteered to help out on the lake after the merger.

Piercy 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 was ejected from Piercy’s boat as the trooper transported him to a patrol field office at speeds of up to 46 mph. The life vest came off, and Ellingson drowned.

Two Missouri troopers set out to re-create the ride and conditions on Trooper Anthony Piercy's boat. This run reaches average speeds of 38 to 40 mph. Piercy was going 39.1 to 43.7 mph just before Brandon Ellingson left the boat and drowned May 31.

During a coroner’s inquest in September 2014, Piercy told jurors that he hadn’t been trained for what he encountered that day. The Star later discovered that the trooper had only two days of field training before he was cleared to work the water.

Jurors at the inquest ruled Ellingson’s death was accidental. But a special prosecutor in the case later charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter. That case continues.

Late last year, several patrol commanders told the House committee that they had followed many recommendations the committee made in January 2015. Members agreed that progress had been made but that more needed to be done.

Strong concern comes in the summer months, when legislators say more troopers need to be on the water. Not just responding to calls, but patrolling the lake and looking for violations.

“When you see a Highway Patrol with radar gun, you slow down,” Wood said. “If you are on the water and see the Water Patrol, you know they are there and you obey the laws. It’s about the presence.”

‘Rethink and regroup’

Some across the state shy away from voicing their opinion about Franklin’s proposal. They don’t want to say publicly whether the patrols should be separated. Several managers and owners of marinas across Missouri didn’t return phone calls for comment.

Others would say privately that the Water Patrol needs to be on its own again. They said they worry about safety, but they didn’t want to be seen as criticizing officers.

As one man put it: “It’s not the troopers’ fault.”

The Lake of the Ozarks Marine Dealers Association hasn’t taken a position on Franklin’s proposal. The group’s leaders monitor it every day and watch the bill’s progress in Jefferson City.

“I think it’s something that needs to be looked at,” said Mike Kenagy, executive director of the association. “Of course, we want as much coverage as we can get.” He added that officers on the lake do “a spectacular job for the resources they have.”

That’s what Johnnie Burns sees along the Niangua River too.

With his father, Bob, Burns runs NRO Canoe Rental near Bennett Spring State Park. Burns spoke out in late 2014, saying that the merger had failed to protect residents and tourists and that parts of the river had become unruly. Burns, who never liked the idea of the merger, said there should have been an outcry across the state before legislators took the vote to combine the patrols.

“I just wish the public would have stood up more when the merger was first thought of and said, ‘It won’t work,’ ” said Burns.

Now he worries it’s too late to have what the state once did.

“If it could go back to where it was, right to that point, it would be a great thing,” he said. “But you know and I know that it can never go back. There’s no way to put it back to the way it was. It’s not going to happen.”

Burns said he has seen patrols improve along the Niangua since the House committee’s recommendations and the patrol’s changes after Ellingson’s death. He understands what the patrol is trying to do and says he works well with troopers patrolling his area.

If the two patrols separated now and different troopers were assigned to waterways across the state, it would be another lengthy learning curve, he said.

“If you start all over, who are you really going to start with?” Burns said. “We’d be vulnerable for the first three or four years. … I was never for the change, but it changed and now we’ve settled down with what we got. Why change it again?”

Still more are glad that legislators are having the discussion. County Commissioner Dodd knows the process of splitting the two patrols wouldn’t be easy and he knows it could cost more money, though how much is still uncertain.

There could be other obstacles too.

“They probably don’t want to admit that the transfer they did isn’t working the way they thought it would,” he said. “But sometimes we have to rethink and regroup.”

Warning: offensive language. Trooper Anthony Piercy called a supervisor at 6:28 p.m. May 31, 2014, about an hour after Brandon Ellingson drowned in the Lake of the Ozarks. Piercy placed the call from the boat of Cpl. David Echternacht. A microphon

The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

House Bill 1960

Rep. Diane Franklin’s 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 bill has been referred to the House Public Safety Committee, but not hearing has been scheduled.

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