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Newton investigates whether former city employee shut down police website amid pay dispute

The Newton Police headquarters.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Newton officials have launched an investigation into the police department’s former longtime information technology director as well as other department protocols, after they said the employee shut down the police website for more than a week this summer amid a pay dispute with the city.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said the former city employee, Steven Smith, took down the department’s website for consecutive days in late June and July. In its place was a message that exhorted people to contact Fuller in order to restore the site.

Smith owns newtonpolice.com, he alone controls access to the site, and he has not turned it over to the city, according to Fuller. The city has since created a new police department website, which serves as a key resource for emergencies and routine matters. The newtonpolice.com website is no longer active.

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A screenshot of how the Newton Police Department website appeared on July 5, 2022.

“Following his departure, Mr. Smith essentially shut down the NPD website, a vital resource for the residents of the City of Newton and those who may have business with NPD,” Fuller said in a statement to the Globe earlier this week.

The pay dispute began shortly after Smith notified Newton officials in March he would be leaving for a new position. At the time of the shutdown, Smith had been wrangling with the city for weeks over about $137,000 he said he was owed in accrued compensatory time, according to Fuller and city records.

Smith worked for the city full time from August 2004 to early April this year, when he became director of police certification for the Massachusetts Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, an agency formed as part of the state’s 2020 police reform law that certifies officers and may investigate claims of misconduct.

Smith, in a statement Wednesday, said he was honored to serve Newton’s police for 20 years. He grew up and raised his family in the city, and during his time with the police, he said, he significantly advanced the department’s technology capabilities.

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“All actions I took in my role were done with the approval and authorization of the Newton police chief at the time,” Smith said. “I am disheartened by the city’s representation of the facts in this matter. I will continue to work with the city to resolve any outstanding issues.”

Fuller announced the city was investigating Smith following inquiries by the Globe, and after the city released dozens of e-mails regarding the police webpage as part of a records request.

“Both [Police Chief John Carmichael] and I are disturbed by what we’ve found happening within the Newton Police Department’s IT function,” Fuller said in the statement.

In a June 27 email to his colleagues, including Fuller, Carmichael wrote: “I think it may be appropriate to notify legal and consider informing POST [the Massachusetts Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission] regarding this behavior by Mr. Smith. I am sure that this conduct is not in the best interest and the standards required by POST.”

Enrique Zuniga, the POST Commission’s executive director, said the agency had conducted a detailed background and references check in hiring Smith, 73.

“The current allegations are very different from what we heard from Newton officials during the hiring process a few months ago,” Zuniga said in a statement. “POST does not comment on unresolved and unrelated personnel issues involving the prior employment of its staff members, and we have not heard anything that warrants a response from the POST Commission.”

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Cynthia Campbell, a spokesperson for the POST Commission, declined to say which Newton officials discussed Smith during his hiring.

Fuller, in her statement Monday, said the city has not been in touch with the commission regarding Smith, nor was the city contacted by the commission when they were hiring him.

Smith left Newton April 1 after nearly two decades as the IT director for Newton police. He earned more than $150,000 last year in that position, and now receives a total of $165,000 in compensation from the POST Commission.

After he accepted the new job with the commission, according to Fuller and city records, Smith requested the city reimburse him for comp time, in lieu of overtime pay, from his long tenure. The city has declined to reimburse Smith, citing a policy that limits non-union workers to accruing no more than 40 hours total, unless they have written authorization from the mayor’s office to do so. The city has no record of Smith receiving that permission, according to Fuller.

Smith has argued he did receive permission. According to a May 24letter from Smith’s attorney, Timothy Burke, to Newton City Solicitor Alissa Giuliani, Smith’s comp time was approved both in writing and verbally on numerous occasions by a Newton chief of police. The letter did not name that chief.

On June 26, Carmichael shared the image of the Newton police website with Fuller, along with Giuliani and Joseph Mulvey, the city’s chief information officer. The webpage had been replaced with a message written in bright red, all-capital letters: “THIS SITE IS NOT EXPERIENCING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES.”

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NEWTONPOLICE.COM has provided the residents of Newton information for the past twenty years at no cost to the City,” the message said, which included Fuller’s email address. “Please ask Mayor Fuller to have this site restored.”

Along with the screengrab, Carmichael included a brief message: “We [are] assuming Steve Smith did this notice.”

The city’s review of the police website has triggered wider questions about police department protocols.

Fuller and Carmichael became aware of a photograph depicting Smith, who was not a police officer, “purportedly wearing a Newton Police Department badge,” according to Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman.

The review determined Smith was granted “special police officer” status in March 2000, Fuller said in her statement. From March 2010 to December 2013, when then-police chief Howard Mintz terminated Smith’s special police status, Smith also had been allowed to add blue police lights to his personal automobile, according to Fuller.

The city says has so far been unable to find any official city records granting Smith a badge, but some documentation suggested he was authorized to have blue lights.

Judith Reardon Riley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said in an e-mail that the Registry of Motor Vehicles does not have any records of Smith being authorized to have police lights on his vehicle from 2010 to 2013.

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Newton officials are now seeking a full accounting of every badge “officially and unofficially issued,” as well as the use of cruisers, unmarked vehicles and take-home vehicles, and police lights.

“Chief Carmichael and I are committed to transparency, accountability, and a full investigation of what happened,” Fuller said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.