‘You can kill anyone you want’: Missouri trooper in drowning case should be fired

Craig Ellingson to Piercy: ‘You’re the reason why my son Brandon is dead’

The father of Brandon Ellingson spoke directly to Trooper Anthony Piercy during his sentencing in September.
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The father of Brandon Ellingson spoke directly to Trooper Anthony Piercy during his sentencing in September.

The Missouri Highway Patrol did not have the legal authority to fire a former trooper in the drowning death of handcuffed Brandon Ellingson, an appeals court has ruled. The Kansas City Star Editorial Board wrote in this 2018 editorial that a different court also got it wrong: Anthony Piercy has no business in law enforcement.

A state law allows Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers to have final say in how other troopers are punished, a Cole County Judge ruled on June 27, 2018. But any law that prevents the patrol’s superintendent from firing troopers is bad policy.

When lawmakers return next session, they should take a hard look at the technical reason Cole County Judge Patricia S. Joyce ruled that the head of the Missouri State Highway Patrol does not have the authority to relieve a trooper of his or her duties.

Col. Sandra Karsten, the patrol’s superintendent, fired trooper Anthony Piercy after the 2014 drowning death of Brandon Ellingson. But Joyce ruled that state law does not allow the superintendent to go beyond the recommendation of a disciplinary review board.

She sent the case back to the agency for consideration of a new, lesser punishment. It’s possible Piercy could be back with the agency soon. Incredibly, he may receive back pay and other benefits.

“The whole thing just sucks,” Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father, told The Star. “If you’re on the blue line team, you’re safe. You can kill anyone you want. ... He gets his job back, and my son is dead.”

The judge, lawmakers and the disciplinary panel of state troopers all have gotten it wrong. Piercy does not deserve to work in law enforcement. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter in Ellingson’s drowning death at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Ellingson died under Piercy’s inept supervision during the arrest.

Witnesses told authorities that Piercy improperly stuffed an already-buckled life vest over the handcuffed Ellingson’s head before he fell overboard and drowned. Piercy eventually pleaded guilty in June 2017 to a lesser charge of misdemeanor negligent operation of a vessel.

Last December, a board of Piercy’s peers determined that he should be reinstated and reassigned. Karsten wanted him fired. She should have that discretion. But Joyce ruled otherwise.

Piercy’s attorney, Tim Van Ronzelen, contends Karsten violated a state statute that lays out procedures for the removal or discipline of members of the patrol.

He successfully argued that a Missouri statute prevents the superintendent from dismissing a member of the patrol if the panel finds that dismissal is unwarranted.

The panel ruled Piercy should be reinstated to active duty.

Police policy reform is a hot-button issue. But no law enforcement agency should police themselves.

A trooper determining the fate of other troopers is wrought with conflicts of interest.

Independent review boards should make determinations on discipline and other issues. But the patrol’s superintendent should have the final say, regardless of the board’s recommendations.

A system that rarely finds fault with officers’ actions needs to be thoroughly and independently reviewed. Otherwise, expect a lack of police accountability to continue.

And legislators should seize their first opportunity to revise a flawed statute that could put trooper Anthony Piercy back on the job.