DECHERD, Tenn. (WTVF) — Two documents given to NewsChannel 5 Thursday now cast doubt over statements Decherd Police Chief Ross Peterson made to Decherd city leaders this week.
The statements surround the fallout from a road rage incident off of one of the most heavily trafficked roadways in the state. The Rutherford County Sheriff's Office says in June, former Decherd Police Officer Mathew Ward -- who was off duty and more than 50 miles outside of his jurisdiction -- held a driver at gunpoint using his police-issued service weapon.
Deputies say it happened off of I-24 in Rutherford County. The incident was captured on cell phone video, where Ward can be heard shouting "Police!" and "Get on the ground!"
Ward was charged with aggravated assault and allowed to resign from the police department.
During a Decherd Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting Monday -- where the victim of the road rage incident addressed city leaders -- Alderman Pam Arnold asked Chief Peterson if he had contacted Ward's previous employer as part of a background investigation before he was hired.
Peterson replied he had not, even though Ward's publicly-available training records requested by NewsChannel 5 revealed Ward's police training officers at the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department raised several red flags about Ward's law enforcement skill.
When Arnold asked why Chief Peterson had not contacted the police department in Florida, Peterson replied he would only be able to ask a couple of vague questions of his former employer.
"You’d only be able to ask them two questions," Peterson said. "It would be: 'Did they work there?' and 'Would you hire them again?'"
Peterson had repeated that to NewsChannel 5 in an interview earlier in the day, saying Ward did not have a liability release filled out, which would have allowed his former employers to answer more detailed questions without fear of being sued.
"There was no form filled out where we got it notarized, where we could ask questions, anything different than 'Did you work there?' and 'Would you rehire that person?'" Peterson said.
THE LIABILITY RELEASE
NewsChannel 5 has learned Ward had, in fact, signed a liability release that could have allowed the department to ask more questions.
Sgt. Greg King, the Decherd Police Department investigator, supplied NewsChannel 5 with the document which appears to be notarized in March 2021.
"The public deserves people to be fully vetted before we grant the power to take away liberty, and even life, under the color of law and authority," King said.
This week, King told NewsChannel 5 Chief Peterson blocked him from calling Ft. Walton Beach Police to investigate Ward.
THE POLICE DEPARTMENT POLICY
Is it possible Chief Peterson didn’t know the liability form existed before deciding not to check Ward’s checkered training history?
King also sent NewsChannel 5 a copy of the Decherd Police policy on background investigations, which says in part, "Forms authorizing the release of information shall be completed..."
That policy was issued in January 2021, less than two months before Ward applied, and it was signed by Chief Peterson himself.
King says those documents throw Peterson's answer to city officials into question, as they try to understand how one of their own police officers ended up with an aggravated assault charge near a busy interstate.
A hearing for Ward is set for October 27 in Rutherford County General Sessions Court.
Decherd Police Chief Ross Peterson and former Officer Mathew Ward have not returned several calls, text messages, and emails from NewsChannel 5 for comment on these stories. If they do respond, we will be sure to update you.