Fired Dunwoody officer, 25, finds 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 former Dunwoody police officer who was fired earlier this year is now voicing his thoughts on the department through an app most known for its comedy and dance videos.

Over the past several months, Austin Handle, 25, who claims he was bullied and targeted by supervisors, has accrued more than 100,000 followers on TikTok, a phone app especially popular among young people. On TikTok, which allows users to post videos that are no longer than a minute, the most-followed young stars frequently post sleek videos of themselves dancing to well-known songs.

Handle, however, gained a following because of a collection of videos where he speaks directly to the camera about the Dunwoody Police Department. The biography on his TikTok page, which uses the handle @officerash, describes himself as a “Corruption Whistleblower.” He has continued to post videos while engaged in a legal back-and-forth with the city ahead of a possible workplace harassment lawsuit.

“Let’s talk about why good cops don’t say anything. They do. They do, and then they’re harassed,” Handle says in one TikTok video, which has nearly 260,000 views.

In a statement, Dunwoody spokeswoman Jennifer Boettcher said the city “has no comment regarding Mr. Handle’s efforts to call attention to his claims and allegations through social media or otherwise.”

Handle claims he was “targeted” and unfairly disciplined during his time at the department. He said a lieutenant falsely accused him of policy violations multiple times, and that he was fired partly because he spoke up and supported other “whisteblowers” within the department.

That lieutenant resigned from the department in May after other former officers claimed he asked for and sent nude photographs and made crude remarks to them, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last month. An internal investigation later substantiated some of those allegations, according to a report released by the department. Handle said he was not one of the officers who was allegedly sexually harassed.

Handle’s attorney, Laura Austin, sent the city a notice on June 17 stating that they intend to sue if the city does not settle his claims for $500,000.

In a written response Thursday, the city and police department said Handle’s claims are baseless and lack evidence, pushing back on the former officer’s description of a toxic work environment, according to a copy of the letter provided to the AJC.

Attorneys for the city wrote that a resident in Handle’s Cumming neighborhood complained that he was speeding in his department-issued cruiser with his lights and siren on. The city said Handle was then fired for “untruthfulness” because he initially denied doing that, but later, during a meeting with another supervisor, said that he did. An appeal to keep his job was denied.

Boettcher said the response to Handle’s warning of a lawsuit is “comprehensive and will likely constitute the city’s only public statement on Mr. Handle’s claims and allegations – at least unless or until he decides to file suit on them.” Austin said early Thursday afternoon that she had not yet gotten a chance to read the city’s response to her notice.

Handle, who is now working on his own startup that provides artificial intelligence services to first responders, first started posting humorous TikTok videos last December. Some were about his work as an officer — though he didn’t directly mention Dunwoody — while some were unrelated.

He said he had about 20,000 followers, but that number grew after he was fired and began posting videos with tags like #corruption and #harassment. From June 3 to July 2, he posted a series of 10 videos describing alleged misconduct within the department.

In the videos, he accuses police Chief Billy Grogan of protecting the former lieutenant who resigned amid the sexual harassment allegations, and criticized the chief for conducting an internal investigation instead of bringing in outside investigators. All of the videos have thousands of views; some have more than half a million.

“Just keep sharing, keep reaching out,” Handle said in one video.

Austin Handle

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

Handle said officers from around the country have reached out to him to offer words of encouragement and share their own experiences. Other users commenting on his videos have also voiced their support.

“TikTok’s new, it got through to the group that we really need it to, which is the younger people,” he said in an interview. “There’s a better chance in 60-second videos that you are gonna have people’s attention.”

Sometimes, Handle uses music, editing or effects to get his point across. He said each one takes about 30 minutes to film, edit and post.

His lawyer pointed out that it’s uncommon for someone involved in a possible lawsuit against their former employer to speak so candidly about the case. While she doesn’t see the videos before they go up, Austin said she is OK with them as long as Handle is being truthful.

“He’s been instructed to try and keep it to the facts,” she said. “He has gotten a following because there are so many people out there who haven’t had the courage that he has had to stick his neck out there.”