How a sexual-harassment complaint against Police Chief Ross Peterson originated and the basis for the witnesses’ action will be thoroughly investigated along with the circumstances where an off-duty officer was charged with aggravated assault in a road-rage case in Murfreesboro, according to Decherd City Attorney Jerre Hood.
The Decherd Board of Mayor and Aldermen will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall to discuss whether to fire Peterson.
Hood issued a press release Wednesday explaining how the city intends to handle the matters involving Peterson.
He said the city and its Police Department have received a lot of attention and adverse publicity recently, most of which stem from a sexual-harassment complaint originating from Police Sgt. Bruce Elliott.
“This complaint appears to have been drafted by or with the assistance of his son, Ben Elliott Duval,” Hood said.
He referred to an amended sexual harassment complaint, filed by Sgt. Elliott, with additional witnesses.
The amended complaint includes 38 current and former Decherd employees as witnesses filed against Peterson and wife Michelle Peterson, a Water Department clerk, on grounds there was “blatant and repeated sexual harassment” while on the job.
Hood also refers to an age-discrimination complaint filed by Sgt. Elliott from when he was transferred from an investigator to third-shift supervisor. Hood said Sgt. Elliott received the same pay rate, plus night-differential pay “which in net effect,” increased his pay.
Hood said the investigation is following procedures authorized in the city’s personnel rules and regulations.
“Numerous witnesses have been interviewed, and that investigation will focus on the issue of whether Sgt. Elliott was the target of sexual harassment,” Hood said.
He said the investigation will look at the “record as a whole and the totality of the circumstances, including the nature of the conduct in question, the context in which the conduct, if any, occurred, and the conduct of the person complaining.
“As a part of that investigation, the action and motives of Sgt. Elliott’s son should be considered since Sgt. Elliott has apparently said his move to oust Chief Ross Peterson started with his son,” Hood said. “His son has publicly stated this would all stop if Chief Peterson was terminated, but not until. The criminal background of Ben Elliott Duval should be readily available for review by those interested.”
Hood said the age-discrimination complaint was answered by Chief Peterson, and the matter is proceeding according to the city’s personnel rules and regulations. He said that the age-discrimination investigation has not concluded.
Hood also addressed the Murfreesboro road-rage incident in his press release.
Peterson has been under scrutiny for how Police Officer Mathew Ward was hired without the staff going through a detailed background check into his employment history.
Ward, 31, of Cason Lane in Murfreesboro, was charged after an investigation of a June 13 road-rage case starting on Interstate 24, according to Patrol Cpl. William Travis, who was the arresting officer.
Ward was immediately suspended from his duties without pay, and he subsequently resigned.
The investigation showed Ward observed Ilya Kovalchuk from the city of Franklin speeding on I-24.
The officer displayed his Decherd Police badge and signaled for Kovalchuk to slow down, according to authorities, and they exchanged words.
Ward pursued Kovalchuk to Medical Center Parkway at Silohill Lane where both men exited their vehicles.
“Ward drew his Decherd-issued handgun and pointed it at Mr. Kovalchuk while ordering him to lay on the ground,” Travis reported.
Travis and Detective Joe Duncan investigated the case, resulting in Ward’s arrest.
Ward was booked into the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center and released on a $5,000 bond. A hearing is set for Oct. 27 in General Sessions Court.
Kovalchuk told the Decherd Board of Mayor and Aldermen on July 12 that he questions how Ward was allowed to be on the Decherd police force, and his actions clearly indicate he was unfit to be a police officer.
Questions were brought up about how Ward was hired in the first place.
Kovalchuk then questioned what kind of background checks had been done that might indicate Ward could have problems.
Peterson was quoted in a Nashville News Channel 5 interview as saying the staff was allowed to ask only two questions and had no further go-ahead to extend beyond that.
“There was no form filled out where we get it notarized or we could ask questions, anything different from ‘did you work here and would you rehire that person,’ and since he’s not actually got an extensive work history in law enforcement, we didn’t do that,” Peterson said. “That’s my answer.”
However, Ward did sign the release-from-liability form that contradicts Peterson’s statement, and it was notarized by Constance King.
Hood said Kovalchuk appeared before the board “at the apparent behest of Ben Elliott Duval.”
Hood said the city performed its standard background check when Ward was hired.
“The controversy now focuses on an additional ‘form’ apparently drafted by Sgt. Greg King for a references check and whether an additional references check was made or should have been made,” Hood said. “The board and mayor will consider those issues for further action as may be required.”
Peterson had said Ward’s track record in police-academy training made him seem fit for duty.
Sgt. Greg King had said some answers to questions he directed at Ward in the hiring process were unsatisfactorily answered.
Greg King said he deemed the Fort Walton Beach Police Department in Florida, where Ward had been, should have been called, but Peterson directed him not to bother with it.
“He told me not to worry about calling,” King said.
He then referred to Peterson’s explanation about the situation to the board.
“I felt it sounded like I didn’t do my job,” King said. “But I didn’t do my job because I was told not to. … I should have been allowed to make the call. Law enforcement doesn’t need any more self-inflicted wounds.”
Hood provided his assessment.
“With regard to a background check, the media has focused on certain trainer’s comments (and) portions of the Fort Walton documents but apparently did not focus on other trainer-comment portions of the documents that opined (Ward) had potential to become a good officer,” Hood said. “A portion of the Enterprise, Alabama, records were cited but taken out of context, and the whole of the Enterprise, Alabama, records should be considered.”
Hood concluded with additional comments.
“The city officials will follow their Personnel Rules and Regulations and will not be harassed or intimidated into taking specific action vigorously pushed by certain individuals who have their own motives and agenda,” he said.
Ben Elliott Duvall responds
to Hood’s allegations
Ben Elliott Duvall, the son of Sgt. Bruce Elliott, countered statements made by Decherd City Attorney Jerre Hood about circumstances surrounding Police Chief Ross Peterson.
Duvall said Wednesday afternoon that Hood’s allegations that Duvall had drafted the sexual-harassment complaint against Peterson are false, and his father initiated the action on his own accord.
Duvall also said that he has been relentless in his quest to hold Peterson accountable for his actions from an incident where his father had allegedly reported that two fellow officers had mishandled evidence in a 2019 drug arrest.
Duvall alleges that Peterson had subsequently taken retaliatory action against his father and moved him from an investigator to a third-shift supervisor.
He said that Hood bringing up the criminal-background issue is a distraction from the issues involving Peterson and should have nothing to do with the investigation into Peterson’s actions.
“It shows how Jerre Hood feels,” Duvall said about those who have been rehabilitated and are given a second chance at life. “It’s pretty sad.”
Duvall also said that he believes Peterson had directed officers to personally harass him through surveillance tactics that should not have been authorized.
Duvall said he would back off of his drive against Peterson if those handling the investigation would pay attention to the facts and consider the evidence rather than taking a path that could potentially lead to lawsuits against the city.