Government & Politics

After man’s drowning in handcuffs, legislators urge changes to improve safety on Missouri lakes, rivers

A special committee of the Missouri House on Thursday released its report on the merger of the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. At a committee hearing Oct. 1, Craig Ellingson (center), whose son, Brandon Ellingson, drowned May 31 at the Lake of the Ozarks, listened intently as Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Randy Henry (left) and Superintendent Ronald Replogle testified in Jefferson City.
A special committee of the Missouri House on Thursday released its report on the merger of the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. At a committee hearing Oct. 1, Craig Ellingson (center), whose son, Brandon Ellingson, drowned May 31 at the Lake of the Ozarks, listened intently as Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Randy Henry (left) and Superintendent Ronald Replogle testified in Jefferson City. The Kansas City Star

Nearly eight months after a handcuffed man drowned in the custody of a state trooper, a group of legislators insists that more changes must be made to ensure that Missouri’s lakes and rivers are safe.

In a final report released Thursday, a special House committee detailed its recommendations to correct flaws created by the 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. Those proposed changes — some of which have already been adopted — include an overhaul in trooper training for the water and recruiting specialized officers to patrol by boat. The committee also called for an update from the patrol in six months and a thorough inspection of changes in two years.

“I think the efforts on behalf of the patrol are being made,” said Rep. Don Phillips, a Kimberling City Republican who is the committee’s vice chairman and a retired Highway Patrol trooper. “We’re going to keep an eye on the process to make sure. But from what I’m getting, I do think they are making the effort.”

The committee’s investigation began in early October 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.

After reading through the report and recommendations, patrol officials said Thursday that they’ve already made some changes.

“The colonel and the command staff have discussed the recommendations with committee members and will continue to move forward with implementing them,” said Capt. Tim Hull, a patrol spokesman.

Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father, said he is glad that the patrol is working to improve training and that troopers now will have to pass a test to prove they can swim well before they are assigned to work on the water. But he hopes the patrol goes much further to improve its operations.

“It’s not near enough,” Ellingson, of Clive, Iowa, said Thursday afternoon. He said he would like to see two officers patrolling together, extensive training in life-saving skills and the use of boats with higher sidewalls to decrease the possibility someone could fall out.

In recent weeks, the patrol created an assistant director position for the water division. That person, Capt. Matt Walz, has begun a full review of officer training and marine duties in the nine troops across the state. A veteran of the Water Patrol, Walz also will work with troop commanders to make sure proper procedures are in place.

That statewide review was at the top of the committee’s recommendations. And Rep. Diane Franklin, the committee chairwoman, said she’s confident Walz’s expertise will lead to significant change.

“Having an incumbent water patrolman in that position is going to be the key to all of the recommendations we have,” said Franklin, a Camdenton Republican. “We were so happy to see (the patrol) do that.”

Walz spoke at one of the committee’s hearings and detailed the merger’s positive effects, as well as some of the struggles it created. He told legislators that the merger could work with proper oversight and some changes, including improved training.

Even before the committee met, patrol officials started making a change in that area. In September, the agency redesigned its swim requirement for highway troopers wanting to work the water.

Before Brandon Ellingson’s death — and since the merger in 2011 — highway troopers only had to complete the Cooper Swim Test, which requires them to swim for 12 minutes. Even if they were considered poor or very poor swimmers, they were still allowed to proceed, veteran Water Patrol officers have said. There was no pass/fail element.

Now, troopers are required to take the Cooper test at the beginning of the training course to assess their ability. Then, according to a document provided by the patrol, they must pass a three-part test at the end of the course.

In that test, a trooper must swim 100 meters without touching the bottom of the pool or stopping; tread water for 15 minutes; and dive 10 feet to retrieve a 10- to 12-pound object and bring it to the side of the pool.

One marine operations class in the fall already used that new swim standard, Hull said.

Franklin and other committee members applauded that change, which was among their recommendations.

“That’s what gives me confidence that going forward, the other recommendations will be implemented,” she said. “Because they immediately recognized the shortfall in that requirement and took steps to correct it.”

Among recommendations that have not yet been adopted: an annual recertification of all marine officers for swimming and other pertinent training; a specialized field training program used across the state and assurance that every trooper working the water has completed it; and a training course on marine operations for commanders.

Then-House Speaker Tim Jones formed the interim committee to review the merger, which came under immense scrutiny after Ellingson’s death May 31.

Trooper Anthony Piercy arrested the 20-year-old Iowa man and was taking him to a zone office for a breath test when Ellingson fell from Piercy’s boat, which had reached speeds up to 46 mph during the transport. Once Ellingson was in the water, the life vest that Piercy had put on him came off, and although the trooper eventually jumped in to try to save the college student, he couldn’t.

Piercy testified at a coroner’s inquest where he told the jury that, in retrospect, he hadn’t been adequately trained for what he encountered that day. Jurors found the death an accident.

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.

During the committee hearings, legislators gathered information on how the patrol’s water division had been managed since the merger and scrutinized the amount of training troopers receive to work the water — both those assigned to waterways full time and part time. They questioned patrol officials on why a merger, which Gov. Jay Nixon promoted as a way to save taxpayer money, actually cost more.

Rep. David Wood, a committee member and Republican from Versailles, said the hearings also revealed that none of the patrol’s nine troop commanders had been trained in marine operations. Yet, within the first year of the merger, marine operations were transferred under their supervision.

“I think we’ve had really good people on the highway and really good people on the water,” Wood said. “But I think it (the merger) took some of the focus away from the water.”

Residents and business owners also spoke at the hearings. Several told legislators that they had seen fewer officers on the water since the merger and that some waterways had become dangerous because of that.

“I cannot stress how much help those public hearings were,” Franklin said. “We kind of gave the people a voice, almost an audience in a way, with the Highway Patrol. It brought them all together with a voice for their concerns.”

She and other legislators also said they noticed a change in patrol officials as the hearings progressed. Cooperation improved, Phillips said.

“In the beginning, we (the committee members) were viewed as sticking our noses into something we didn’t belong in,” Phillips said. “By the end, I don’t think that was their opinion at all.”

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Key recommendations

The House committee, in its final report Thursday, called for changes in the Missouri Highway Patrol’s marine operations.

▪ Review training, policies and procedures pertaining to marine operations.

▪ Establish a swimming standard for troopers wanting to work the water.

▪ Conduct annual recertification of all marine officers for swimming and other training.

▪ Create and enforce a marine field training program statewide.

▪ Improve relationships with community stakeholders along Missouri waterways.

▪ Recruit officers specifically for marine operations.

▪ Use the knowledge and training of managers who were with the Water Patrol before the merger.

▪ Provide the committee with an extensive update in six months.

▪ Have a legislative overview in two years to examine changes and improvements.

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