A police officer pulled a man in handcuffs over to a placard set up on the sidewalk of Independence Avenue early Saturday so he would read the words:
In memory of Diane and Anna Bronson. Killed by a drunk driver July 4, 2011.
“You can’t do it,” the officer told the man caught in a DUI checkpoint. “It ain’t right.”
Kansas City police are trying a new tack in the battle against drunken driving by personalizing the crime. A large photograph of the Bronsons, mother and daughter brimming with life, was their Exhibit A.
The Bronsons, of Belton, were killed at 8:30 a.m. that day when a drunken driver hit them head-on at highway speed on Interstate 435 near 63rd Street. The drunk was going south in the northbound lanes.
Diane Bronson’s son, Tyler, was among more than a half-dozen family members and friends along with several volunteers from Mothers Against Drunk Driving who were at the checkpoint late Friday and early Saturday to show solidarity with the police.
Tyler Bronson said his mother often visited DUI checkpoints to bring the officers cookies and other refreshments because she felt so strongly about drunken driving. The last thing she said to him, two days before she and her daughter were killed, was to watch out for stupid drunks.
“She would be honored, without a doubt,” Tyler Bronson said of the idea that his mother and his little sister would be featured at such a checkpoint. “She would be tickled pink, as she liked to say.”
The checkpoint at 3719 Independence Ave. had only been active for about 20 minutes before police nabbed two suspected drunken drivers. One tried to drive the wrong way up Monroe Avenue to avoid the trap. Another driver tried to turn around after seeing the lights and orange cones, but he was intercepted by a waiting patrolman and made to go through the drill. He passed the test, though, and was allowed to carry on with his life.
Others had to take a field sobriety test — heel-to-toe for nine steps, and back, without staggering — and then were taken to a mobile lab on site where they had to blow into a machine to check their blood-alcohol content. The losers ended up taking off their belts and being locked in a converted school bus awaiting transport to jail. Their cars were searched and, if anything illegal turned up, their night was only going to get worse.
By 4 a.m., 330 vehicles had been stopped and 15 people were booked for drunken driving. There were 14 arrests for other crimes. One person was collared for possessing a firearm while being intoxicated. Double trouble.
At a roll-call briefing before the operation began, Capt. Robert Zimmerman, head of the Kansas City Police Traffic Investigations Unit, said people often ask cops why they conduct DUI checkpoints.
Don’t you have anything better to do?
“No, we don’t really have anything better to do,” Zimmerman said.
This checkpoint took place about 24 hours after a suspected drunken driver killed a motorist-assist employee of the Missouri Department of Transportation on Interstate 70.
Diane and Anna Bronson had been headed to a family breakfast and then to an Independence Day parade when they were killed. Diane was 44 and left a devastated husband and two sons. Anna was 11. Friday would have been her 13th birthday.
The man who killed them, Felix Solano-Gallardo, got 15 years in prison.
The Bronson family and the MADD volunteers stayed in the background at the checkpoint. Their role was not to get in the face of the suspected drunks, said MADD volunteer Jeannie Davis, but to be supportive of the law-enforcement effort.
Annette Murray, Diane’s sister and Anna’s aunt, acknowledged she didn’t know if their presence would make a difference.
“It’s one of those things where you’re not going to be able to know if you saved a life, but it’s worth a try,” she said. “If somebody would turn their keys over to someone else or decide not to get into a car and drive drunk because of us, then that would be worthwhile.”
Murray said it was difficult for members of her family to participate in the checkpoint, but she could think of no better way to honor Diane and Anna.
Besides, she said, “It’s not about us anymore. It’s about another family. I’d just hate to see another family go through this.”
Avis Lowe, a victim advocate for MADD who worked with the Bronsons’ family after the crash, said personalizing drunken driving at checkpoints is a potentially effective tool for police.
“What they’re hoping for, and we’re hoping for, is that it will give more awareness to what drinking and driving can do and make people open their eyes,” she said. “We’re hoping it will save some lives.”
Police said 14 other people died in Kansas City in 2011 because of drunken driving and 49 had disabling injuries. In 2010, 63 percent of fatal crashes involved an impaired driver. Last year, police made 406 DUI arrests at 29 checkpoints, which are conducted at known hot spots for drunken crashes or arrests.
Police Sgt. Ron Podraza has been working DUI checkpoints for more than six years and he’s seen it all, including one man who was arrested three times in one year at the same checkpoint on Independence Avenue.
“We’re hoping that this could really mean something,” Podraza said of the initiative to place victims’ photos at the checkpoint. “You can throw (drunken driving) numbers out there but it doesn’t grab people...Hopefully, by putting a face to this, maybe we can grab some attention.”