Former Lawrence police officer turns DUI accident into life mission

Christopher Mann, a former LPD officer who was injured in the line of duty by a drunken driver in 2002, has become an advocate against alcohol-related accidents and fatalities in Kansas.

Christopher Mann, as a young police officer with the Lawrence police, shaking hands with former Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin, left.

At age 25, everything was going as planned for Lawrence police officer Christopher Mann.

The Olathe native was completing a degree at Kansas University and following in the footsteps of his father — a Lenexa police officer — and fulfilling a lifelong dream.

During a routine traffic stop in Lawrence about 3:30 a.m. Jan. 11, 2002, that all changed. Mann pulled over a vehicle for having a tail light out.

A few minutes into the stop in the 2100 block of Haskell Avenue, a speeding drunken driver struck the back of Mann’s patrol car, sending him airborne.

“I looked up, I saw headlights,” said Mann, whose patrol car crashed into him, bouncing him into, and then over, the vehicle he’d pulled over.

He blacked out, and when he came to, he couldn’t stand. The accident and the injuries he sustained eventually ended his police career.

But 11 years later, Mann has refocused his energy, spending his days as a Wyandotte County assistant district attorney and working as an advocate against drunken driving.

‘Knowing it was done’

Mann couldn’t walk for five days after the accident, which occurred shortly after he’d completed running his first marathon. And even though he didn’t break any bones, the damage his nerves and muscles sustained had temporarily crippled him.

After extensive physical therapy, Mann worked his way back to the police beat. But he was in constant pain, and the occasional buckling of his legs eventually made it clear that his days as an officer were over.

“They said, ‘Look, you’ve got to find something else to do,'” said Mann, who had to retire from the police force just a few years into his dream career.

“Absolutely devastated,” Mann said. “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever dealt with, knowing it was done.”

Still young, but waking up every day in pain, Mann spent several years in business, real estate and as a private investigator.

But he had yet to settle on a new career.

“It was taken from me,” he said. “It was a huge blow to my ego, my self-esteem. It took a couple of years to stand back up.”

After his retirement, Mann was called back to court to testify about an old case. Leaving the courtroom, he knew he’d found a new calling.

“I really missed the law,” said Mann, who decided to use his police background and begin a law career. His goal: become a prosecutor and help keep drunken drivers off the roads.

He graduated in 2010 from Washburn University Law School in Topeka, and then landed a job with the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office in Kansas City, Kan.

“I kind of had to redefine myself,” Mann said.

More to do

Though he worked to convict drunken drivers in his role as a prosecutor, Mann eventually found himself wanting to do more to help Kansas, which had lagged the country in reducing drunken driving fatalities.

That meant opening up about his accident.

“Before then, I just didn’t really want to talk about it,” he said.

In 2011, Mann worked with other advocates and prosecutors to shape the state’s DUI ignition interlock law, which requires first-time offenders to install ignition interlocks on vehicles they drive.

He’s also begun working as a volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, helping restart the organization’s mobilization in the state. He traveled to Washington, D.C., as a representative of MADD and lobbied for more funding for innovative programs to cut down on drunken driving.

And recently, Mann joined Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and spoke to the Kansas Legislature in support of House Bill 2043, which would allow prosecutors to charge drunken drivers with aggravated battery in serious injury accidents.

In Mann’s own case, the driver pleaded guilty to aggravated battery, because speed was a factor in the accident. But in other cases where prosecutors cannot prove another form of recklessness other than being drunk, prosecutors can’t file additional charges.

That was the case in the August 2012 drunken driving accident in Lawrence during which a KU student lost his legs after being struck by an alleged drunken driver.

Strengthening such laws brings the state one step closer to trimming drunken driving fatalities and accidents in the state, Mann said.

With pride, Mann talks about the 2011 ignition interlock law. Since it passed, drunken driving deaths in the state have plummeted.

Mann said he’ll keep working on getting drunken drivers off the streets, and telling his story.

“Being involved has helped the healing process,” he said. “It gives the injury a purpose.”