‘I was doing what thousands of athletes have done’

Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo with the bike he crashed in the Adirondacks in June.

By MARK JOHNSON
VTDIGGER.ORG

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo remembers the front wheel on his custom-made racing bicycle violently wobbling. He checked his speed, 45 miles per hour, near the beginning of the four-mile-long steady descent through Cascade Pass, and tried to slow. He was 51 miles into a 56-mile training run in the Adirondacks. It was early evening, about 5:30, the middle of June. His last image before being pitched from his bike was Owls Head Mountain, just up ahead.

An off-duty forest ranger, an acquaintance del Pozo knew from his years in the Adirondacks, reached the scene shortly after the crash. Del Pozo was still astride his bike when the first people found him. Del Pozo doesn’t remember the conversation, but the ranger told him later that del Pozo initially didn’t recognize him. Del Pozo was talking, the ranger said, but he was clearly in rough shape. (Using GPS, the chief went to back to the crash site and found the arm to his sunglasses that had broken off, still in the road, on Route 73 in Keene.)

Banged up and woozy, in and out of consciousness, del Pozo was taken first by ambulance to the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, then airlifted to Burlington, where he was put in intensive care. In all, he had 10 broken bones on his left side, including four ribs, a fractured skull, a partially collapsed lung and a serious concussion. An X-ray showed bleeding in the brain. He was saved by his helmet, he said, which cracked, the foam inside completely crushed on one side.

The broken headgear now sits in his police department office. It serves, he said, as “a constant reminder of the hazards life brings you.” The exact cause of the crash remains unknown, the likely culprit a malfunction of a wheel part. Riding it again, even though it was virtually undamaged, would be “bad karma.” Del Pozo said he’ll only use the bike for parts. The chief already has a serious racing bike collection, including two in his foyer of Tour de France quality. Both could literally be lifted with one finger.

Del Pozo returned to work this week, two months after the crash, following a recovery that he said included some low points. And, as might be expected from someone holding a master’s in philosophy in addition to one in criminal justice, del Pozo’s recovery included some deep thinking, too.

‘Some time to think about life’

In a recent interview with VtDigger, del Pozo recounted the darkest time, literally and figuratively. A week after he came home, del Pozo sat in the study of his Burlington home, shades drawn, no light coming in, all by himself. One ear ringing, head aching, the 43-year-old del Pozo said he grew emotional thinking about his future.

“When you’re sitting there in a dark room with a bunch of injuries, headaches and symptoms of a bad fall, that could have been much worse, but luckily wasn’t, you have some time to think about life and you realize how vulnerable you are,” he said.

“I mean, listen, people get these injuries, you could get it slipping on a patch of ice, you can get it walking out into the street and some person is texting and runs the light. Taking a hike. You can get it on the ski slope. What I’m saying is you realize how vulnerable you are.”

He worried about taking care of his family. Del Pozo is married and the father of two young boys, 6 and 10.

The prognosis was positive “but you don’t feel great at that moment, and I was saying am I going to get back to a spot where I actually feel great and can continue to be a provider for my family.” His wife, Sarah Carnevale, found out he was overdue and called his cellphone shortly after the accident, before the ambulance arrived, and the forest ranger relayed what happened. His parents visited soon after he got home; he later wrote them, knowing they’d been so worried when they first found out.

A ‘sobering’ experience

Del Pozo is still clearly shaken by the accident, going through what he calls “a temporary reaction to the trauma.” He called the experience “sobering” and described himself as “humbled” by the accident. The longtime New York City cop, who took the Burlington top post in 2015, is not a stranger to trauma — he lost police friends and survived the “debris cloud” during 9/11. He also had to be carried out when he snapped a tendon in his knee on Camel’s Hump while visiting almost 10 years ago.

He knows if his bike crash had happened in a more remote area, he may not have made it. The Brooklyn native also felt lucky and overwhelmed by the support he received, including meals residents dropped off. He was also embarrassed, he said, over all the attention when others in law enforcement and the military have suffered more serious injuries with little notice. He wasn’t sure his accident deserved the fuss until he reviewed his X-rays, saw the signs of bleeding in the brain and realized how fortunate he’d been.

Del Pozo insists that today his cognitive skills are fine. He is more easily fatigued but said his endurance is improving. A recent trip to New York City with Mayor Miro Weinberger, a one-day down and back to attend an event on the opioid crisis, completely wiped del Pozo out, he said.

His physical injuries, he said, moving his shoulder, have substantially healed. He is still in physical therapy, attending a session focused on balance just prior to an interview this week at his Burlington home where, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he spoke with clarity, passion and humor for more than two hours. He also works out in a pool.

‘I’m really, really lucky’

“I don’t want to sound flippant,” he said. “But I defy anyone to find a mental change. I think I’m really, really lucky that even from day one with the questions they asked and the cognitive test they gave, that I was fine,” del Pozo said.

Del Pozo, in the interview, at times sounded defensive. He is sensitive to criticism that he was reckless. Del Pozo engages in a number of higher risk sports, including ice climbing, rock climbing and winter hiking. He insists in all of those sports he is mindful to mitigate and manage risks. He said he has turned back on winter hikes, for example, out of prudence.

In the case of his bike accident, he said, it was a fluke that he could have done nothing to prevent. He did say when he gets back on the bike, and returns to competition, he’ll likely dial back the peak speed on the downhills and try to make up time lost on the uphills, not traditionally his strength. Del Pozo and his wife own a home in Keene, New York. Last year, he participated in the Lake Placid Half Ironman — he was training for that event when the accident happened.

“I just don’t know how you anticipate the randomness,” he said, adding late, “I wasn’t riding a 20-year old Huffy (bike) with broken spokes.” Several times del Pozo mentioned the recent death of a cyclist in Lincoln, an experienced rider like himself whose bike left the road on a steep decline. Del Pozo said she too could have experienced a problem she could do nothing to prevent, the difference being her case was fatal.

What concerned del Pozo, he said, is that residents rightfully expect the police chief to use good judgment, to have a clear mind and not take unnecessary risks. He insists he did not and was a victim of fate.

“When we talk about cognition and judgment, the people of Burlington and the state of Vermont have entrusted me to make important decisions about risk on behalf of our community. And my police officers and their families have entrusted me to make important decisions about risk. I think you don’t want a chief of police who is reckless or who is taking senseless risks for a thrill. That’s a problem in government and a problem in policing and I’m sensitive to that,” del Pozo said.

“I was doing what thousands of athletes have done,” he said.

Deeper sense of empathy

The chief also said he has a deeper empathy and understanding for those who suffer concussions, including several members of the Burlington Police Department. He admitted looking sideways at some who appeared fine on the outside but still complained of symptoms, including fatigue, long after they had a concussion.

He also marveled at having health insurance where he received quality care and paid only a few small deductibles.

Del Pozo acknowledged he may not be able to work full days. He went into the office a few times during his recovery for important job interviews including the search for a deputy chief, and, for example, to review the police coverage plans for the July nurses’ strike. He said those “toes in the water” should help lessen the time it takes to adjust to being back every day.

He acknowledged he was getting bored after weeks of practicing his guitar and watching post-apocalyptic movies on Netflix once he was cleared to use a computer. An avid reader — his bookcases are filled with works about philosophy — del Pozo said he was frustrated the concussion made it more difficult to concentrate and read. He said he’s had two pints of beer since the accident.

Mayor Weinberger met del Pozo’s medevac helicopter when it landed in Burlington shortly after midnight the night of the accident.

“It was pretty scary at first,” the mayor said, the scene at the hospital a mix of optimism and uncertainty.

The next day, Weinberger said del Pozo was physically banged up but seemed mentally OK.

“On the one hand, he was basically immobilized and dealing with his left side being pretty broken up, but I could tell right then, he was cogent and engaged, and that it would just be a matter of time before he was back to his old self,” Weinberger said. City officials, the mayor said, will monitor del Pozo, a self-described Type A personality, to make sure he’s not overtaxing himself after his return.

‘Renaissance man’

Weinberger called del Pozo “a modern day Renaissance man” — “a great thinker” with a “brilliant mind” who also has “an incredible range” of interests in physically challenging sports. The mayor dismissed any thought of suggesting del Pozo curb his outdoor pursuits.

“I look for that kind of balanced person and wouldn’t want him to change that. He had bad luck here. It was just an unfortunate accident,” Weinberger said. He praised Deputy Chief Jan Wright for smoothly leading the department in the interim, but the mayor said del Pozo was missed.

Except for slowing his speed slightly on the downhills, del Pozo fully intends to continue pushing his mind and his body. He’s particularly interested in getting back to work on the opioid crisis. The bike? When the time is right, he said.

On the inside of del Pozo’s right arm, he carries a tattoo, three symbols in Mandarin. They represent the “path of the scholar warrior” which calls for a life of balance among intellectual, cultural and physical pursuits. The symbols appeared in the book “Scholar Warrior” by Chinese author Deng Ming Dao. Del Pozo got the tattoo in 1997.

“I’ve tried to strike this balance in my own life,” he said. “The tattoo was meant to be a reminder of that commitment.”

While his still damaged left shoulder, other injuries and broken helmet now serve as reminders the path can include unexpected bumps, too.

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