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Interim police chief in Newton seeks stability

Matthew Cummings

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Matthew Cummings was removed suddenly as Newton’s police chief last week.

NEWTON — Since taking over as Newton’s interim police chief last week, Howard Mintz said one of his first tasks in meetings with officers and staff has been to emphasize the importance of professionalism.

“We don’t want an atmosphere where anybody is being verbally bullied, harassed,” Mintz said in an interview Friday.

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That may be a simple lesson, but following Matthew Cummings’s sudden removal as police chief after accusations of “boorish” and inappropriate behavior, it has taken on new significance.

A report outlining the chief’s alleged conduct has stunned a city recently named one of the best places to live in America and frequently on the list of safest cities in the nation. It has also put a spotlight on the otherwise low-key police agency of 235 workers.

According to an investigative report commissioned by the city, Cummings called his secretary a “bitch” and said in 2010, “I think you look like a whore.” The report also states that he told a pregnant officer, “You’re almost as fat as I am,” and asked another female employee who had a tattoo, “How drunk were you when you got that?”

‘It is critical that the leadership, of the top police officer in our community, have conduct that is becoming.’

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He also kicked the secretary, Jeanne Sweeney Mooney, in the foot, the report said.

Cummings was trying to be funny in these instances, the report states, but the behavior could be perceived as “disrespectful, inappropriate and offensive.”

“I’m speechless,” said Alderwoman Amy Mah Sangiolo. “You’d think that by now, such language wouldn’t be used.”

Mayor Setti Warren said the city is moving to dismiss Cummings for “conduct unbecoming a police chief,” which is among the triggers for termination under his contract. The chief has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Cummings, 57, of Ashland, declined to comment when reached by e-mail on Friday, saying that he was preparing a legal response. He told New England Cable News on Wednesday that he plans to fight the dismissal.

“I’m not going to leave after 32 years of good service with this type of thing over my head,” he told NECN.

The behavior outlined by the independent report, if accurate, should not be tolerated, said Alderwoman Deb Crossley.

“I think there’s no place for that in a city government, certainly no place for that when you’re charged with running an organization that is charged with keeping the people safe from harm,” she said.

Newton officials stressed that Cummings’s alleged behavior is not a reflection of the police force. But the case, which city leaders have acknowledged is bizarre, has roiled the department for months.

The chief’s ouster is the latest act in a nearly yearlong drama.

Last September, Cummings placed Mooney, a longtime employee, on administrative leave for allegedly taking $660 in permit fees. She was recently charged with larceny.

Mooney filed a complaint in May alleging retaliation and harassment by the chief, prompting the city to hire an independent investigator.

In addition to the alleged “boorish” behavior, the report found that Cummings told Mooney that she was the target of a television station’s investigation and presented her with photos taken of her at her house during her work breaks. The television investigation did not exist. Cummings did not take the photos, but another employee in his office did, acting independently, the report states.

That employee was also the main witness to Mooney’s alleged theft of the permit fee money. The same employee was stopped by the Natick police last winter after being accused of attempting to steal expensive meats from a grocery store. He was never charged with a crime, Newton officials said and remains employed with the city.

“The whole thing is troubling to me,” Crossley said.

Newton officials said the city is not immune to harassment cases, but the last high-level case involved a planning director in the late 1990s.

For now, Mintz said, he hopes to help the department to heal.

“Even during this time, the quality of the morale has been good,” Mintz said. “But we need to stabilize.”

However, fallout from this case is likely to continue. The city has pursued a criminal case against Mooney and she is seeking civil damages from the city.

Cummings, who became chief in 2009, is entitled to a hearing under his contract with the city.

It is unusual for a police chief to be fired for inappropriate language and behavior, similar to banter that still sometimes goes on in police stations, said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police officer and a Tufts University lecturer.

“Is it in bad judgment? Is it imprudent? Is it distasteful? Yes. Is it just cause?” Nolan said. “It’s a fairly significant burden to meet.”

Warren, however, stood by the city’s response.

“It is critical that the leadership, of the top police officer in our community, have conduct that is becoming,” the mayor said. “They set the tone.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.

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