DECHERD, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Decherd police sergeant says his boss blocked a full pre-employment investigation surrounding former Decherd police officer Mathew Ward, who now faces an aggravated assault charge following a road rage incident. That sergeant says a more thorough inquiry into Ward's job history may have revealed potential red flags now uncovered by NewsChannel 5.
The Rutherford County Sheriff's Office says Ward illegally held a driver at gunpoint in Rutherford County following a road rage incident off of I-24 last month. The Sheriff's office says Ward was off duty at the time, but used his police-issued sidearm.
Ward was 57 miles away from his jurisdiction of the small town of Decherd in Franklin County. A passing driver captured the incident with their cell phone camera, which shows Ward was driving an unmarked red pickup with Arkansas license plates at the time of the incident.
Ward was allowed to resign from the Decherd Police Department.
"The types of behavior that were exhibited by Officer Ward don’t appear out of nowhere," said Decherd Police Sergeant Greg King, who is also a Franklin County Commissioner. "There probably were some warning signs, but I can’t say for sure."
MATHEW WARD'S WORK HISTORY:
Our investigation has revealed that Ward did not have a spotless work history at his previous employer, the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department, where he served as a police officer-in-training.
Officials with Ft. Walton Police who have first-hand knowledge of Ward’s training told NewsChannel 5 Tuesday that following his graduation from a Florida state-approved police academy, Ward was in the field training process at the Ft. Walton Beach Police Department, where he was paired with a training officer, and not yet allowed to work alone.
Officials at the department said during Ward's training in Ft. Walton Beach, he received negative feedback from his training officers and wasn’t progressing through the phases of training as a typical officer would; he made it to the second of four phases before resigning without advance notice.
WHY WARD'S FORMER EMPLOYER WASN'T CALLED:
King says he is the officer in charge of running investigations of police officer candidates at the Decherd Police Department. He says before Ward was hired to work in Decherd he had instituted an enhanced background check for officer candidates modeled after the Metro Nashville Police Department.
King says that check included contacting a candidate’s previous employer to find out about any concerns, but King says that didn’t happen with Ward -- because Decherd Police Chief Ross Peterson told King not to make the call.
"I asked Officer Ward in his interview about going through the Florida police academy and leaving Ft. Walton Beach within four months of being hired there," King said. "The answer was cut off by Chief Peterson during the interview."
"Afterwards in the squad room, Chief Peterson and I were talking," King said. "I said I was going to call Ft. Walton and find out what they had to say, [Peterson] said, 'Don’t worry about that, he’ll be fine.'"
"And I clarified and I said, 'So you’re telling me not to call?' He [Peterson] goes, 'Yeah, it’ll be ok,'" King said.
QUESTIONS EMERGE AT BOARD MEETING:
During a Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting Monday night, the man Ward held at gunpoint confronted Decherd city leaders during the board's public comment period, which led one Alderman to question Peterson about not contacting the police station where Ward worked previously before hiring him.
"Ross, did you contact this Officer’s previous employer?" asked Alderman Pam Arnold.
"No," replied Peterson.
"No? Why?" asked Arnold.
"Because he didn’t actually-- He wasn’t actually an officer there, he was going through his field training program," Peterson replied.
"But if I applied for a job at Walmart, they would contact my previous employer," Arnold responded.
Peterson explained that by law, even if he called Ward’s former employer, they would have been able to tell him only if he worked there and if they’d hire him again. But King says given what Ward is now charged with, he wishes Peterson would have at least gotten those answers.
"In this day and age with law enforcement under the scrutiny that it’s under, to not be as thorough as we can in vetting candidates is just unconscionable to me," King said.