Missouri lawmakers spent more than five hours drilling current and retired troopers about training protocols in a review of the Missouri State Highway Patrol sought after a man drowned this summer while under arrest.
The meeting in the capitol was the first to help state representatives evaluate the impact a 2011 highway and water patrol merger has had on services and cost savings. House Speaker Tim Jones created the eight-member committee of representatives to review management and trooper training since the merger.
Gov. Jay Nixon sought to combine the highway and water patrols to save an estimated $3 million a year, but the drowning of a 20-year-old student in May has led lawmakers to question whether the merger hurt troopers’ ability to protect residents.
Brandon Ellingson went into the water of the Lake of the Ozarks on May 31 after Trooper Anthony Piercy arrested him for drunken boating and handcuffed him. Ellingson was wearing a life vest with arm holes that could not be fastened on a person wearing handcuffs, and the vest slipped off.
Prosecutors did not press criminal charges against Piercy in relation to Ellingson’s death, but The Kansas City Star reported that the trooper testified that he did not have proper training to handle that situation on a lake.
Patrol troopers declined to address the drowning or any recent changes in policy during the hearing. Still, members of Ellingson’s family watched the hearing with hopes that results would help them persuade the U.S. attorney general to investigate the man’s death.
“The facts came out that the merger failed miserably and safety was jeopardized due to that,” said Ellingson’s uncle Bob Caluzzi, who drove from Des Moines, Iowa, for the hearing. “This will help push our agenda forward to get justice for Brandon, hopefully.”
Lawmakers repeatedly questioned Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Ron Replogle and other leaders in the department about changes in training before and after the merger.
Current officials said the merger increased manpower and helped the patrol address sometimes violent protests after an unarmed 18-year-old was fatally shot in August by a Ferguson police officer. However, retired water patrol officers and one water patrol veteran said troopers previously trained on just highway patrol duties don’t have the same skills to adequately handle conflicts on the water.
The legislation passed despite concerns from water patrol officials who warned that it could hurt services.
Piercy’s supervisor, Sgt. Randy Henry, said lack of swim training was “of great concern to us” before troopers ever began working on the waters.
“Some of these part-timers didn’t even take the final swim test in the academy for whatever reason, they were hurt or whatever,” Henry said. “They graduated from the four-week boat class and didn’t even take the test, much less pass it.”
Committee chairwoman Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, said questions remain regarding whether the merger actually saved the state money. One audit conducted several months after the merger found that it appeared to cost the state an additional $900,000 that year because of increased retirement and healthcare contributions. Replogle said the increased workforce and shared resources have been a valuable result of the merger but can’t be quantified.
“I don’t know how you put a dollar amount on some of those things, the efficiencies that we’ve seen from that,” Replogle said. “I don’t know that you can.”
The hearing was the first of four scheduled across Missouri. The next meeting is set for 11 a.m. Oct. 14 at the Osage Beach City Hall and will focus on resident input.