According to his colleagues and friends, Michael Middlebrook, a 44-year-old corporal with the Lafayette Police Department, could have taught a master class in compassionate, effective community policing. He patrolled one of the most dangerous pockets of his hometown, and he was exceptional at his job.
He had an agreement with a local convenience store: Instead of throwing away their day’s worth of unsold hot dogs and sandwiches, they would give them to him, at no charge, and he would then give the food to the homeless and the hungry in his patrol precinct. He also collected and handed out free clothing to those in need. When he discovered that a family he knew was without heat for the winter, he bought them a space heater and tried to keep it quiet. But those who worked with Cpl. Middlebrook recognized he was extraordinary. In March, the organization Beyond the Badge honored him with the Heart of Law Enforcement Award.
In the late evening of Oct. 1st, Cpl. Middlebrook was shot and killed while on duty, after responding to reports of a shooting at the Big Boy convenience store on Moss Street. He was the first Lafayette police officer killed in the line of duty in more than 50 years. He left behind his young wife, Adrien, their three-year-old daughter, Violet, and two stepchildren.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, the people of Lafayette pulled together and honored Cpl. Middlebrook with a tribute worthy of his sacrifice. Hundreds of people lined the streets during his funeral procession. Law enforcement officers from across the country showed up to pay their respects. City leaders, including Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, promised the community that Middlebrook’s family would be taken care of.
“We did what we always do here in times of tragedy,” Allyson Prejean said. “We were Lafayette strong.”
Prejean, a defense attorney and partner at the firm Salinger Law, had known and worked with Cpl. Middlebrook, and like so many others, she had always admired him. At some point during the day of his funeral, she introduced herself to his widow, offering to help her in whatever way she could in settling his estate and dealing with what would almost certainly be an overwhelming series of actions that awaited her.
Copies of Middlebrook’s death certificate would need to be distributed to financial institutions. There would be requests for interviews with the media and discussions with government officials about survival benefits. Prejean, who is herself the spouse of a law enforcement officer, volunteered to help, pro bono, with the expectation that the Lafayette Consolidated Government would keep its word to Adrien Middlebrook and ensure that she was taken care of.
But despite the public declarations made by the Mayor-President and others, the Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) almost immediately determined that Cpl. Middlebrook’s widow and child were not entitled to maintain health care benefits at the same rate provided prior to his assassination. As a result of the LCG’s decision, Adrien Middlebrook’s monthly premiums would skyrocket by 125%. Instead of paying $300 a month for coverage, the officer’s widow would now have to pay more than $600 a month.
On Oct. 19th, Prejean fired off a letter to Mayor-President Robideaux, calling the LCG’s position “not just unacceptable; it is unconscionable.” As she quickly discovered, LCG is not legally obligated to enforce such an increase; there are no statutes that required a change in status. The government could simply determine that the surviving spouse of an officer killed in the line of duty maintain the full benefits to which they would be otherwise entitled. In fact, just last year, East Baton Rouge Parish had made the same determination with respect to the surviving spouses of three officers killed in the line of duty, according to their Director of Human Resources.
It was a matter of discretion by the administrator of the insurance plan, a simple rule-making change that could be executed by LCG.
Initially, Prejean was told that LCG intended on passing an ordinance within the next 60 days to codify protections for surviving spouses like Adrien Middlebrook, and so, sensibly, she requested that LCG extend the October 21st deadline for a change of Middlebrook’s status. Put another way, LCG gave Cpl. Middlebrook’s widow only three weeks after her husband’s death before forcing her to pay an additional $4,000 a year for health insurance.
City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott responded to Prejean’s letter at the close of business on Thursday, demanding that Adrien Middlebrook pay the “applicable premium” by the close of business on Monday, October 23rd. If she failed to do so, “her opportunity to obtain this coverage would be lost forever,” he wrote. Escott also asserted that the deadline could not be changed, and then, in the very next paragraph, changed the deadline, noting that the 21st deadline fell on a legal holiday.
On Friday, Prejean spoke with multiple media outlets, including The Bayou Brief, outlining her client’s position and meticulously explaining how LCG could easily remedy the issue without any need to financially burden Cpl. Middlebrook’s widow. The LCG denied repeated requests for comment.
Lafayette is failing the widow and the three-year-old daughter of a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to his community. Although there is nothing in the law that prohibits LCG from continuing Ms. Middlebrook’s health insurance coverage, there is an easy way for the City-Parish to resolve this immediately.
On Monday, October 23rd, they could call an emergency special session to pass an ordinance guaranteeing that the surviving spouse of a police officer or firefighter killed in the line of duty maintain their status as a full beneficiary until a change in marital status or unless the surviving spouse voluntarily opts out. It would pass unanimously, and Cpl. Middlebrook’s widow would not have to worry any more about negotiating with a bureaucracy that seems more intent on following the rules they imposed on themselves than in doing the right thing.
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