DECHERD, Tenn. (WTVF) — Documents obtained by NewsChannel 5 through a Freedom of Information Act request shed new, specific light on former Decherd police officer Mathew Ward's work history that took place long before the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office says he held a private citizen at gunpoint with his police-issued service weapon during a road rage incident last month.
Deputies say Ward was off duty and far outside of his jurisdiction of the Franklin County town of Decherd when it happened. Cell phone video shows the incident taking place off I-24 in Rutherford county, with Ward driving a truck with Arkansas tags.
Ward now faces an aggravated assault charge for the encounter.
Past reporting from NewsChannel 5 revealed that officials at Ward's previous employer -- the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department in Florida -- said Ward had received criticism from his supervisors as a police officer-in-training, and he wasn't progressing through the various stages of officer training as most officers do. He abruptly resigned from the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department before signing on with the Decherd Police Department.
City officials in Decherd have questioned why the police department didn't dig deeper into Ward's past before he was hired. Decherd Police investigator Sergeant Greg King told NewsChannel 5 the city's police chief, Ross Peterson, told him not to call the police department in Florida to look into Ward's past.
NewsChannel 5 filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Mathew Ward's training files with the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department, which we received on Wednesday.
The publicly-available documents include detailed comments from Ft. Walton Beach police trainers that raise red flags about Ward's ability to be a police officer nearly two years prior to the June 2021 incident that he's now facing an aggravated assault charge for.
The documents also reveal disciplinary issues involving Ward at another law enforcement agency -- the Enterprise Police Department in Alabama -- that led to him being fired.
"IF YOU COME TO MY HOMETOWN, I'LL KILL YOU"
Ward's hiring summary from Ft. Walton Beach Police details Ward's past work history, including a stint at the Enterprise, Ala. Police Department.
During his time there, the summary states he was sent to the law enforcement academy, under the police department's sponsorship. According to the summary, early in the academy, he was involved in a conflict with a fellow trainee that stemmed from a "heated argument," after Ward didn't complete chores in their shared residence.
According to the hiring summary, the fellow trainee became so enraged that he "came at" Ward and threatened to "find him at his home." In response, Ward said "something similar to 'If you come to my home town, I'll kill you.'" While the report notes this statement was likely an exaggeration, the Enterprise Police Department fired Ward.
WARD'S TIME WITH FT. WALTON BEACH POLICE
Ward's training records also thoroughly cover his time as an officer-in-training with the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department in Florida. During that time, he was paired with several field training officers, and not yet allowed to patrol alone.
The training records use a scoring system of 1-7 to grade several attributes -- anything from general appearance and attitude toward police work to knowledge of criminal procedure and decision making.
According to the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department, a score of 1-3 requires improvement, 4-5 is acceptable and 6-7 is advanced or superior. An exclamation point signifies "not responding to training."
Ward's early training records show he started out with kudos from his trainers.
"Ward arrived early and with all required accouterments," one comment read. "Ward has an upbeat attitude and will to be at work."
But as the weeks continued in the training, his trainers continually noted issues with Ward's progress.
"Ward is very dependent on the [Field Training Officer] and lacks either self-confidence or drive to push forward on his own," one comment read.
After not writing a report firmly enough on a set of carbon copies, one trainer wrote: "Ward was unable to take the criticism and immediately became defensive stating that he could read it if he angled the paper."
In another instance, Ward and his training officer were investigating a suspicious vehicle after a report of a theft. After Ward failed to get enough detailed suspect information from a witness, his training officer called the witness back, who gave different information than Ward had reported.
The trainer wrote, "As soon as the call ended [Officer In Training] Ward became upset and began calling the caller a liar multiple times and advised he was telling me a different story than what he had told him (OIT Ward)."
The trainer had to review Ward's body camera footage to get the full story.
"Ward seems to have a problem listening and retaining the correct information," the trainer said.
"AS LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS WE ARE HELD TO HIGHER STANDARDS"
Ward's training file also reveals an incident where he argued with an apartment manager over him being able to park his personal car in a handicapped parking space.
The report says Ward -- who had no handicapped parking placard -- parked in the handicapped space after telling the apartment manager that he was to be her new "courtesy officer." It's unclear whether Ward was living in that apartment complex.
The trainer wrote: "I told him as law enforcement officers we are held to higher standards and that does not mean we park wherever we want to."
RESIGNATION: "...NO INTEGRITY AND CANNOT BE TRUTHFUL."
The records show Ward submitted his one-sentence handwritten resignation letter to the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department on February 3, 2020, suddenly giving his notice that day, citing "personal reasons."
On the day of his resignation, his supervising trainer wrote: “Ward has shown this profession is not for him. Ward is unable to meet the standards of [the Field Training Evaluation Program]. Ward has shown to have no integrity and cannot be truthful. Ward has been given all of the tools and training necessary for the job and Ward continued to show little dedication to the profession.”
AVAILABILITY OF INFORMATION ON WARD'S PAST
Facing criticism from Decherd city leaders during a Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting Monday night, Decherd Police Chief Ross Peterson defended his decision not to call the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department to gather information on Ward prior to hiring him.
Peterson said he did not call Ft. Walton Beach Police because Ward was still in the officer training program there.
"But if I applied for a job at Walmart, they would contact my previous employer, even if I was there for training," said Decherd Alderman Pam Arnold at the meeting on Monday.
Peterson responded by saying that even if he had called, by law the Ft. Walton Police Department would have only been able to say whether Ward worked there and whether they would have been able to hire him again.
"That's everything I've ever been trained on," Peterson said in a phone call to NewsChannel5 on Wednesday defending that decision.
But doubts remain about whether Peterson indeed could have only asked those two questions. NewsChannel 5 obtained Ward's records through a standard Freedom of Information Act request, under the Florida Sunshine Law. Those laws guarantee -- with some exceptions -- that the public has access to public records. The laws grant no special rights to members of the press to obtain information or documents that anyone else, including Police officers conducting investigations, could request.
NewsChannel 5 wants you to know the steps we're taking to bring you all sides of this story.
We have made several attempts to contact former officer Mathew Ward -- through both phone calls and text messages -- for comment on this story, but Ward has not returned those so far.
We've also forwarded the training reports to the Decherd Police Chief, who also has not yet responded with any further comment.
We will let you know if and when we hear from them.