- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Arrests for drunken boating on Missouri waterways have fallen by 63 percent since the Missouri State Water Patrol merged with the Highway Patrol in 2011.

State records show that arrests for boating while intoxicated fell from 352 in 2010, the last year before the merger, to 131 arrests in 2014. So far this year, the arrest total stands at 131, matching last year’s total.

Capt. John Hotz, a patrol spokesman, said the number of crashes involving impaired boaters also is down, from 65 in 2010 to 18 in 2014, resulting in fewer deaths and injuries. Eight people died and 33 were injured in impaired boater crashes in 2010, while five people died and 13 were hurt in 2014.

Gov. Jay Nixon sought to combine the departments to save the state an estimated $3 million a year. The legislation passed despite concerns from water patrol officials who warned lawmakers that it could hinder efforts to assist people on Missouri’s waterways.

But the merger has since faced questions, in part because a 20-year-old handcuffed man in patrol custody tumbled into the Lake of the Ozarks on May, 31, 2014, wearing an improperly secured life vest. The vest slipped off, and Brandon Ellingson, of suburban Des Moines, Iowa, drowned. The trooper transporting Ellingson for a breath test primarily patrolled roads and testified he lacked training to handle the situation on the lake.

“It doesn’t seem that shocking to me,” said state Rep. Rocky Miller, a Republican from Lake Ozark who is on a committee investigating the merger and owns property at the lake. “There is just no enforcement in my opinion. The BWIs are bad, but also what’s bad is we’ve got a really bad wake problem, and the reason that people aren’t being courteous with their wakes is because they don’t see troopers out there. If there’s no chance of any enforcement being done with the fact that they are being dangerous with their wakes or dangerous behavior in general, then they are going to keep doing it.”

But State Rep. Don Phillips, a Kimberling City Republican who is the vice chairman of merger investigation committee, said he “was a little surprised” by the drop, adding that “our focus has been trying to get them out there and get visibility, which should result in more boating while intoxicated arrests.”

A report from state lawmakers released in January found that the merger resulted in less training for troopers working on state waterways. The report also questioned cost savings and notes that response times and visibility of marine troopers dropped when the water patrol was merged with the Highway Patrol. A 2011 audit found the program cost an additional $900,000 a year, although officials have said that doesn’t fully represent savings.

Benefits from the merger include technology improvements and the ability to renovate a pool used to train law enforcement, according to the report.

Hotz said in an email that the patrol has seen a decrease in violations on both the highway and waterways in general over the last few years.

“While it is impossible to say for sure the exact reason for the decreases, we know that high visibility enforcement and educational efforts continue to make a difference,” Hotz said. “The Missouri State Highway Patrol remains committed to providing service and protection on both our roadways and waterways.”

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