By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Hudson-Now retiring Hudson police chief Michael Burks’ first big break was a job washing dishes.
Specifically, he was working undercover through the Central Middlesex Drug Task Force tracking a Wellesley College kitchen worker suspected of dealing drugs to students and staff. He spent a month in plainclothes with soapy hands before he ultimately bought 3.5 pounds of then illegal marijuana from the man.
“It was a big bust,” he said.
He then added, though “Now I’m helping marijuana facilities in Hudson secure themselves. It’s a big change.”
Once the youngest cadet to ever join the Hudson police force, the town’s top cop will retire at the end of February. Looking back his time rising through his department’s ranks, Burks is quick to note that much about public policing has changed.
Among those changes are ones made to drug policy, represented in few better ways than in Burks’ own career.
“Back [in the 1980s] it was like, ‘The more people that I could arrest for drugs, that would solve [the drug crisis],’” he said, adding, “Now, looking at it 30 years later, that didn’t work…We didn’t arrest ourselves out of this drug era then, so, [when I took over a chief] we thought ‘We can’t do it now.’”
Burks, after all, was in the department as opiate overdose deaths rose steadily through the 2000s and early 2010s and was then chief when the rates spikes massively between 2015 and 2016. But he didn’t even need to look to national statistics to see the impacts of the worsening drug crisis.
Twenty one Hudson residents fatally overdosed in the first four years of Burks’ chief tenure.
Community Advocate data requests in 2017 found, meanwhile, that Hudson had the highest per-capita rate of combined fatal and non-fatal overdoses in our coverage area.
Noting that problem, Burks welcomed a partnership with the Advocates group, which now sends employees on follow up visits to surviving overdose victims encouraging them to get and/or accept help. He also moved to follow other area departments in getting the overdose reversing drug Narcan into all cruisers while collaborating with local advocates on a variety of outreach measures.
“That’s [all] a totally different take on how we’re dealing with this opioid crisis,” he said.
Beyond the police response to drug related crime, Burks has also observed a tectonic shift in American popular attitudes towards police.
He took his job just after national attention and the ire of large protest movements turned to issues of police accountability after controversial killings of unarmed black men in everywhere from Ferguson, Missouri to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Leading his department and his larger community through such times, he acknowledged, was a major part of his job in Hudson. He also noted, though, that it was a duty he tackled with experience having worked in Hudson’s own internal investigations unit earlier in his career.
“I was always reminding myself ‘what would the public expect?’” He said of his internal investigation work and his attitude towards his own department’s conduct as he rose through it. “[The public] put us in a position of trust so if someone is not honoring that expectation, someone needs to look into that.”
All that being said, he lauded the integrity of his department and thanked the community he has called home for his entire adult career. Through the years and broad national controversies, he said, Hudson has stood by him and his officers.
“That is rare,” he said. “You don’t normally see that in terms of having a community that will rally around the individuals that service them.”
Burks’ days in Hudson’s public service are now numbered. Having joined the force young, he’s retiring young and says he’s looking forward to “decompressing” with his family after his last day on Feb. 29.
Having seen his industry change under his feet over decades in the cruiser, and, eventually, behind the desk, he says he’s grateful for it all. He has no regrets.