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

State board reverses decision that denied benefits to officer who found a following on TikTok
A screenshot of Handle's TikTok page.

Credit: Screenshot via TikTok

Credit: Screenshot via TikTok

A screenshot of Handle's TikTok page.

A Dunwoody police officer who gained a social media following as a whistleblower has regained his unemployment benefits, but the city said it’s a mistake they will fight in court.

Austin Handle, who claims he was bullied and targeted by police supervisors during his two-year stint in Dunwoody, was fired in May 2020 for allegedly lying to his bosses and breaking department policy. He was initially denied unemployment benefits by the Georgia Department of Labor, but its board of review recently reversed that decision, finding the city didn’t sufficiently prove Handle’s firing was justified.

The city filed legal paperwork in DeKalb County Superior Court in hopes of reversing the decision, but Handle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he expects the board’s ruling to stick.

“It was a very emotional moment for me, my girlfriend and my family,” Handle said. “We were all kind of just happy tears. I think I was shaking.”

Using the TikTok handle @officerash, Handle quickly accrued more than 100,000 followers last year shortly after being fired. He called himself a “corruption whistleblower,” posting short videos where he talked about the Dunwoody Police Department and made 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.

The city denied all of Handle’s accusations at the time, and police spokesman Sgt. Robert Parsons defended Handle’s firing in a recent statement. The department said it fired Handle for lying about speeding through a neighborhood in his department-issued cruiser with his lights and siren on — a violation of department policy. A petition for judicial review was filed Dec. 2.

“The Department firmly stands by its separation decision,” the statement said. “Furthermore, if the City is given the opportunity to participate in a reopened or new appeal hearing, the Department is confident in its ability to present testimony and other evidence more than sufficient to carry its burden of proof.”

»Read the full petition for judicial review at the bottom of this story.

Austin Handle

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

According to the filed paperwork, Dunwoody claims the Georgia Department of Labor did not properly notify the city of Handle’s hearing date with the board of review, which took place in September. The city said the department did not update the city’s mailing address, leading the city’s attorneys and witnesses to miss the hearing.

The city adds that 63 pages of evidence filed by the city were excluded from the hearing, which it claims was a “clear error.” Parson’s statement said Handle “essentially managed to win an unopposed proceeding.”

Handle argues the documents were thrown out because they were department-generated documents.

On Oct. 22, the board of review reversed the prior rulings, granting Handle’s appeal “on the grounds that the city had the burden of proof to show just cause for the discharge decision, that the city did not participate in the hearing and that the record evidence did not support the Administrative Hearing Officer’s Decision upholding the denial of benefits.”

Handle said the legal battle shows how local governments have more resources than would-be whistleblowers, often discouraging them from coming forward.

“It just speaks to our system being set up in a way that organizations that have these kind of resources, like police departments or local governments, that want to fight the whistleblower,” he said. “They are poised or positioned much better than the single whistleblower trying to fight back and probably already (having) lost their salary.”

Handle is now on the board of directors of The Lamplighter Project, a nonprofit that encourages whistleblowing within law enforcement. He said he hopes the board of review’s reversal will provide encouragement to others.

“My advice to anyone out there is to keep the faith,” Handle said. “Keep fighting because if you don’t, who else will?”