Leicester Police Chief Jim Hurley had barely six weeks left on the job when his small suburban town became the Central Massachusetts epicenter for recreational marijuana sales.
After Cultivate opened on Nov. 20, thousands of people ventured to the town of 11,000, making a stop in their Thanksgiving travel, or taking extra days off work to stand in the winding lines.
Very quickly, excitement turned to frustration for Leicester residents. Businesses were faced with Cultivate customers parking in their lots. Some homeowners dealt with cars blocking their mailboxes, others with customers urinating on their lawns. The town organized an emergency meeting, and residents begged their public officials to do something.
And just like that, Hurley was thrown into the spotlight.
“The buck stops with me on public safety,” Hurley said, sitting in a conference room at the Leicester police station just nine days after Cultivate opened.
“My big thing about this was, this is a local issue. As a local police department, we need to be able to handle this, and we need to be able to show our community we can handle it because that’s what they pay us for.”
When he announced in early November he would leave his job Dec. 30, Hurley had no idea the next eight weeks would include one of the biggest crowd-control challenges he’d ever faced as chief. It was on par with the opening of Leicester’s Walmart Supercenter about a decade ago.
But Hurley loves challenges, he said.
“This is something that I enjoy, believe it or not, setting up the plan, getting it ready, and trying to make it work,” Hurley said.
Like all large-scale public events, the Leicester Police Department had devised a “special operations plan,” an organized set of instructions for public safety, traffic patterns, and crowd control. After the meeting, that plan was altered, and the changes could be felt immediately.
“Tuesday morning, 6 o’clock, I was out there, and we got the place cleaned up, we started doing what we said we were doing,” Hurley said.
That was important to him. He wanted residents to know he had heard their concerns, and he wanted everyone to know about the solutions they had planned.
“I answer to the community, and we’ve always tried to be transparent and put everything out there that people need to know, and it seems to have worked out well for us,” he said.
By all accounts, their new plan worked. Within days, the car line subsided, and the crowds were under control.
“And I think if I had to give us a grade, I think we scored pretty good on it,” he said. “Did we have some stumbling blocks? Yes, we did. But I think for an agency our size to take this on, by themselves, and to handle it, it went very well.”
Hurley, 56, leaves the Leicester Police Department on Sunday after about 13 years as chief and several decades as an officer. He starts a job in the new year as a field representative for the New England State Police Information Network. Sergeant Kenneth Antanavica has been chosen as the interim chief.
Hurley, who lives in Holden with his wife, said he has loved leading the Leicester Police Department and will miss working alongside the other 20 officers, but the 60-hour weeks are tiring him out.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he added with a chuckle. “I’ve got a number of officers behind me who have been very loyal to the community and have done a great job, and I also want to see them get a chance to sit in the front office.”
As he cleans out his office, Hurley said he realizes that the legacy he is leaving behind is larger than just his role in Leicester. He’s put together a series of resources for other police departments to use, and written an article about Leicester’s special operations plan for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to share with other chiefs who will manage the opening of recreational marijuana shops in their towns.
In recent weeks, with the lines at Cultivate becoming manageable, Hurley has had more time to focus on the end of his career in Leicester and think about the impact he made.
In many ways, his town was the guinea pig for making a booming industry function efficiently in a small community, and he’s proud of the way his department rose to that challenge.
“That’s the legacy of the Leicester Police Department when it comes to pot shops opening,” he said. “Yes, we were the first, but we did it in a manner where everyone could get in, everyone’s lives were protected, and there were no major issues.”