Government & Politics

Undoing Missouri Water Patrol merger no longer necessary, key lawmaker says

Rep. Diane Franklin said Thursday that she would stop pushing legislation to undo the 2011 merger of the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol is already making changes that address many of her concerns, she said.
Rep. Diane Franklin said Thursday that she would stop pushing legislation to undo the 2011 merger of the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol is already making changes that address many of her concerns, she said. kmyers@kcstar.com

A Missouri legislator who filed a bill to dismantle the 2011 merger of two state patrols said Thursday that she would stop pushing the legislation because crucial changes are already being made.

Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, said Thursday that the de-merger legislation she filed in January has led the Missouri Highway Patrol to assign more troopers to the water and to beef up efforts to identify boaters who are intoxicated.

The changes will go into effect at the Lake of the Ozarks in the next two months, before prime boating season.

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“The bill forced the patrol to the table to take meaningful actions to boost the Water Patrol Division,” Franklin said in announcing the patrol changes. “They realize they lost credibility with their water coverage. They don’t like that, and they’ve faced that.”

Staffing on the Lake of the Ozarks will increase to 20 troopers, Franklin said, but she did not know how many are working on the lake now. She referred that question to the Highway Patrol, but a patrol spokesman did not return calls.

The new staffing, Franklin said, will include some officers with past Water Patrol experience. Troopers also will work extended shifts during peak boating season. Boats will have GPS that will allow commanders and legislators to know where and when troopers were on the water. And a veteran of the old Water Patrol, Capt. Matt Walz, will manage the water division at the Lake of the Ozarks.

“I really wanted a de-merger,” said Rep. Rocky Miller, a Lake Ozark Republican who co-sponsored Franklin’s bill. “But I’m also in the business of being fair and saving money. If this accomplishes that and we’re where we need to be, I’m good.”

Residents at the lake have told Miller and other legislators that they’ve seen fewer troopers on the water since the merger. And they’ve said it can take two or three hours for a trooper to respond to a violation call, and once the trooper gets there, the violators have moved on.

In a story last week, The Star reported that since the merger in January 2011, the number of arrests for boating while intoxicated has plummeted by 61 percent, according to the Highway Patrol. Arrests went from 344 in 2010 to 134 last year.

As part of the changes, the patrol will step up public education efforts on boating while intoxicated and boating safety.

Walz also will monitor operations at Table Rock Lake, and there’s a possibility for an additional trooper there, said Rep. Don Phillips, a Kimberling City Republican. Phillips is retired from the Highway Patrol and has been active in the discussions to improve enforcement on waterways.

The de-merger proposal allowed lawmakers to sit down with patrol commanders and work through issues and obstacles, he said.

“I tell you, we’re to a point we are too deep into this to turn it around and go back the other direction,” Phillips said. “Really, a lot of this stuff should have been done in the beginning when the merger happened.”

Gov. Jay Nixon heralded the merger as a way to save taxpayers as much as $3 million a year. Combining the two has actually cost the state about $900,000 more a year.

The merger gained heavy scrutiny after the drowning death of Brandon Ellingson on May 31, 2014. Trooper Anthony Piercy, with 18 years of experience on the road, had volunteered to help on the water after the merger.

On that day, Piercy pulled over Ellingson for suspicion of boating while intoxicated. The trooper cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back and then placed a type of life vest on Ellingson that could not be secured on someone already 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.

Piercy later told jurors at a coroner’s inquest that he wasn’t trained for what he experienced that day.

After Ellingson’s death, the patrol stopped using supplemental help from the road division on the water. And after a House committee, chaired by Franklin, conducted several hearings and made recommendations to the patrol, training improved for officers on the water.

Franklin’s committee will meet again at the end of the year. At that time, members will ask commanders how these latest changes have worked.

Just because Franklin and the others are no longer pushing the de-merger legislation doesn’t mean the issue goes away now, she said.

“I’m not folding up my tent and walking away,” Franklin said. “They’re going to deliver, or we’re going to find out why not.”

Miller agreed.

“I’m never taking my eyes off of this,” Miller said. “We need to have a visual, effective law enforcement group down there, and currently we don’t have it. Hopefully, through these changes, we’ll get them.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

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