Dunwoody whistleblower wins appeal to keep police certification

A screenshot of Austin Handle's TikTok page.

Combined ShapeCaption
A screenshot of Austin Handle's TikTok page.

A Dunwoody cop turned whistleblower will be able to keep his law enforcement certification after he claims he was fired in retaliation for criticizing the police department.

Austin Handle, who was fired after his two-year stint in Dunwoody for allegedly lying to his bosses and breaking department protocol, was investigated the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council after he was fired in May 2020. The agency’s board, which oversees police certifications and personnel issues, initially voted to revoke Handle’s certification, but he appealed the decision.

On May 2, POST’s chairman and executive director penned a letter saying they reversed the earlier ruling, administratively dissolving the case and allowing Handle to keep his certification.

“The flag on my file is gone as well,” Handle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Explore‘Keep the faith’: Dunwoody police whistleblower gets unemployment benefits

After Handle was fired, he gained a significant following on TikTok under the handle @officerash. He accrued more than 100,000 followers by calling himself a “corruption whistleblower” and posting short videos where he talked about the Dunwoody Police Department. He made several allegations that supervisors were covering up sexual harassment within the department.

Handle said he was targeted in retaliation for trying to get another officer investigated. While he didn’t name him at the time, Handle was referring to Lt. Fidel Espinoza, who resigned last year amid an internal investigation that found he asked for nude photographs from at least three employees. Handle was not among those employees, but he said he was aware of the situation.

Handle is among multiple former Dunwoody police officers who have criticized how the department handled the Espinoza investigation, which ended with the embattled lieutenant being allowed to resign. Brian Bolden, a detention officer who was critical of the department, was fired in March after leaking information to media outlets, which he called a retaliatory firing and “witch hunt.”

ExploreDunwoody cop fired for media leaks, said police chief took ‘coward’s way out’

The city denied all of the accusations made by Bolden and Handle. The department defended Handle’s firing in December when the Georgia Department of Labor allowed Handle to claim his unemployment benefits.

“The Department firmly stands by its separation decision,” the statement said. The department declined to comment on POST’s recent decision.

Chris Harvey, POST’s deputy director, said terminations automatically prompt an investigation. In December 2020, the POST council voted to revoke Handle’s certification.

Since Handle appealed the decision, he wasn’t stripped of his certification, but the cloud that hung over him in the meantime would make it very difficult to land a job at a different law enforcement agency, Harvey said.

“If I were interviewing somebody and they said, ‘Well, my certification is sort of in a holding pattern because it was voted to be revoked, but I’ve appealed it, and no final determination has been made,’ that could as a potential employer give me pause,” he said.

During the appeal process, Handle and his attorney were able to provide more documentation and reargue their case to the board. While Harvey wasn’t among the POST leaders who ruled on Handle’s case, he did say the documentation swayed the board’s opinion.

“In this case, when they considered all the circumstances, they determined that revocation was not appropriate,” he said. The board can recommend probation or suspending certification as lesser punishments, but no action was taken against Handle.

ExploreDunwoody police, ex-lieutenant at center of another sexual harassment lawsuit

POST does not have any control over police departments, only officers, so Harvey said no action would or could be taken against Dunwoody police as a result of the reversal.

“It could subject them (Dunwoody police) to criticism or something like that, but POST doesn’t have any jurisdiction over agencies,” he said. “We only have jurisdiction over individual officers.”

Handle is now on the board of directors of The Lamplighter Project, a nonprofit that encourages whistleblowing within law enforcement. He said his certification expired during the drawn-out review and investigation, so he’ll have to resubmit and redo some training.

However, he said it’s been his mission to return to police work.

“I’ve always said that I was going to finish the fight first before going back. But I have remained true to one thing, that one day I will rejoin and finish my law enforcement career properly,” he said. “That could be years down the road just because I am in a pretty good place... but I will, without a doubt, return one day. I miss it everyday.”