- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

OSAGE BEACH, Mo. (AP) - A Missouri State Highway Patrol officer on Tuesday told state lawmakers reviewing the agency that trooper training was “deficient” before the May drowning of a man in trooper custody.

Patrol Sgt. Randy Henry was among several current and former troopers who explained how training changed after the 2011 merger of the Highway Patrol and the Missouri State Water Patrol. Gov. Jay Nixon merged the agencies hoping to save an estimated $3 million a year, but the May 31 drowning of a 20-year-old student has led lawmakers to question whether the merger hurt troopers’ ability to protect the public.

“It is obvious that the training that occurred before May 31, 2014 was deficient,” Henry said. “That is not an excuse for poor judgment.”

Henry previously said some troopers trained after the merger never took a swimming test. Committee chairwoman Rep. Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton, said more swimming training will be among the lawmakers’ recommendations to House Speaker Tim Jones, who appointed the committee.

Brandon Ellingson was a suburban Des Moines, Iowa, resident and student at Arizona State University who had gone with friends to the Lake of the Ozarks, a popular tourist destination in central Missouri. Trooper Anthony Piercy arrested him for drunken boating, handcuffed him and placed a life vest on Ellingson that had arm holes that could not be fastened on a person wearing handcuffs. Ellingson went into the water while being transported on the trooper’s boat, and the life vest slipped off.

Prosecutors did not press charges against Piercy in Ellingson’s death. The Kansas City Star has reported that the trooper testified that he did not have proper training to handle that situation on a lake.

Jones later created an eight-member committee of representatives to review management and trooper training since the merger.

Several citizens who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing criticized the merger, mostly because they said they now see fewer troopers patrolling the lake and other waterways.

“I don’t see the water patrol anymore,” Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Everett Kelly said. “The public never sees them.”

Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Ron Replogle declined to comment after the hearing.

Some Highway Patrol officials have defended the merger, saying it helped increase the patrol’s manpower in responding to natural disasters and incidences such as the sometimes violent protests after an unarmed 18-year-old was fatally shot in August by a Ferguson police officer.

The committee did not specifically address Ellingson’s drowning during either an initial hearing held Oct. 1 at the Capitol or during Tuesday’s hearing, which was held in the Osage Beach City Hall near the Lake of the Ozarks.

Still, Ellingson’s father and a handful of supporters tried to remind them.

“My son died under their custody,” Craig Ellingson said, urging for a separate water patrol again. “Hopefully they change the way they operate now.”

Demonstrators from Missouri and Iowa stood outside the building in a light rain holding signs, and a woman from Lake Ozark wore a black shirt that read, “Training. Accountability. Justice. Nothing less.”

A Columbia man wore a life vest and handcuffs. A piece of paper on his vest read “This is Brandon.”

The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 5 in the Capitol.

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Follow Summer Ballentine at: https://www.twitter.com/esballentine

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