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When the three Boca Raton officers were called to a child trapped under a car, they didn’t have time to think. So they lifted, police said, and the 6-year-old boy was saved.
It was two minutes after the 8 a.m. bell on Wednesday and the teachers were headed to class when Dominic DeRoberts, a first-grader at Verde Elementary School, got out of his grandfather’s car, the DeRoberts family said.
A month ago, Police Officer Bill Browning was busy doing things he enjoyed the most — restoring old cars, embarking on his 40-mile round trip bicycle ride to work, or putting on his uniform and keeping Ridgefield roads safe. However, the life he knew and loved is on hold now as the 49-year-old recovers from an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, unable to walk.
On Feb. 27, Officer Browning was off-duty and visiting a friend and fellow officer’s home where he fell 30 feet off a ladder while cutting down trees.
He was rushed by Life Star to Waterbury Hospital. He endured nearly eight hours of surgery and was later transferred to Gaylord Rehabilitation Center in Wallingford and will remain there until the end of April.
Since the accident, it’s become a daily habit in the police department to check a bulletin board — typically used to announce meeting information and case updates — hoping someone posted good news about Bill’s recovery. Officers alternate signing their names on a nearby calendar to ensure their friend and colleague has regular visitors.
Sgt. Michael Gates has been a frequent visitor. “He’s doing better than I would be in that situation,” Sgt. Gates said. “He has his good days and his bad days.”
Prognosis for the future is uncertain, and the Police Union and Ridgefield Police Benevolent Association are working on fund-raisers to offset Officer Browning’s loss in salary and ensure that one of Ridgefield’s finest can continue to support himself and his two college-aged sons.
Officer Browning’s oldest son Jim, 22, attends Roger Williams University and his son Sam is 20 and attends the University of Virginia. His ex-wife Suzanne Browning works in the town assessor’s office.
A constant battle
When Officer Browning joined the Ridgefield Police Department in 1999, leaving a former position in Lewisboro, N.Y., a routine blood test revealed he had cancer. Since then, he has been in a constant battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“I think the cancer really turned him into a believer that he can get through this, too,” Police Union President Christopher Daly said of the recent accident.
The cancer didn’t stop him from staying active. Officer Browning has participated in Ridgefield’s Annual Triathlon and he’s raised thousands of dollars for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by riding in national cycling events.
Sgt. Gates worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift with Officer Browning for years, saying, “He would ride 20 miles to work, do his eight-hour shift and then bike home at midnight every night,” Sgt. Gates said.
Officer Browning has a record of exceptional service to the town.
“[He] has been a member of the Department’s Specialty Squad and, most recently, the Bike Patrol,” a letter from the Police Commission, Union and PBA wrote. “In addition, Officer Browning received several awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), was named Officer of the Year in 2001, was nominated for Officer of Year in 2002, and was recognized for valor by the First Selectman.”
A Press article on his Officer of the Year designation in 2001 explained that he played an important role in getting drunk drivers off the roads.
Sgt. Gates recalled the Thanksgiving Eve fire that resulted in Officer Browning’s valor award. An accidental fire broke out in the early morning. Officer Browning and Sgt. Gates arrived on the scene before the fire department and saw that residents were trapped on the roof of the burning house. While they were waiting for the fire department to arrive, Officer Browning found a ladder and they were able to get everyone down safely.
Before his accident, Officer Browning spent his free time on a number of building and mechanical projects, including a four-car garage he built on his own to restore old cars.
It wasn’t uncommon for fellow officers to ask for his help with big projects and he was always willing.
“Bill is a master at everything,” Officer Daly said. “Anything mechanical — he can do it.”
Life after the accident
On part-time disability, Officer Browning receives two-thirds of his salary for six months. In a recent unanimous vote by the police department, each of the 39 members donated one sick day to Officer Browning, ensuring he will receive full-pay for the next six months.
“No one had to think twice about it,” Officer Daly said of the vote.
“I would give him all of my sick days and vacation days if I could, to help him out financially,” Sgt. Gates added.
In September, Officer Browning will be put on long-term disability, which means he will receive 50% of his salary.
“We don’t make that much and when you take away half of our salary, it’s going to be tough,” Sgt. Gates said. “He has two kids in college and a house to support. I’m really concerned as to how he will be able to keep what he has and pay his bills.”
Friends and colleagues are optimistic about Officer Browning’s recovery and subsequent return to the force. “There’s always hope,” Sgt. Gates said.
In the meantime, officers are looking to retrofit Officer Browning’s house to accommodate his new needs. While insurance is covering his stay at the rehabilitation center, it will not cover the cost of making his home accessible.
“We have some guys on the force who are carpenters and obviously everyone is willing to put in the time,” Officer Daly said.
An account to help support Officer Browning has been set up at Ridgefield Bank. Any and all donations would be appreciated and may be sent to the Officer Bill Browning Fund, Ridgefield Bank, 150 Danbury Road.
A number of community events are in the works to help Officer Browning. The PBA is planning a benefit concert Saturday, June 20, at the Ridgefield Playhouse. Plans are still being solidified.
The Police Union will donate all the proceeds from an annual golf tournament on Sept. 28 at Silver Spring Country Club to the fund for Officer Browning. All are welcome to play in the tournament, purchase flags to be placed at each hole or join the group for a dinner at the Community Center.
The efforts to help Officer Browning are being organized by the entire department and especially Officers Jeff Raines and Nick Fowler of the Ridgefield PBA and Sgt. Mike Gates and Officer Chris Daly of the Police Union. Chief John Roche, and Police Commissioners George Kain, Tom Reynolds, Susan Craig, Charlie Knoche and Carl Lecher are all involved in the efforts to assist Officer Browning.