Austin Handle has gone from Dunwoody police officer to self-proclaimed whistleblower in a matter of months — and you can watch him tell his whole story in a series of 60-second TikTok videos.
After Handle was fired from the department on May 11, he started sharing his experiences on TikTok, a popular video-sharing social media app, to shed light on alleged misconduct in the command staff.
“I had the possibility that I could post something and 20,000 people would see it,” said Handle, whose username on TikTok is @officerash. “But I also knew there was a possibility that it was going to totally blow up in my face.”
Intent to sue
Handle, who now works as a tech entrepreneur working on artificial intelligence to assists first responders, is one of a group of former and current Dunwoody police officers who plans to sue the city of Dunwoody because of alleged misconduct from former Lt. Fidel Espinoza. Handle said his complaint mostly claims retaliation from Espinoza because he spoke out against alleged harassment.
Three other former or current officers in the department have harassment claims against Espinoza. Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan issued an investigative report about the first two claims of sexual harassment from former officer Roger Halstead and civilian transport officer Brian Bolden, dismissing key allegations but acknowledging Espinoza did send and receive improper sexual images and improperly accused Bolden of theft.
Handle in June filed an intent-to-sue notice to the city of Dunwoody through his attorney, Laura Austin, who is also representing Halstead. His lawsuit will be filed if the city does not resolve the pending complaints, Austin said.
The city attorneys had not responded to the notice as of Aug. 12, city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said. Boettcher said the city is not aware and does not have a comment on Handle’s posts.
Handle said he isn’t worried about how his public TikTok statement will affect his legal case because he only posts “exactly what happened.” He said he is more interested in revealing alleged misconduct in the department than getting settlement money.
“As long as it’s truthful and honest, it’s fine,” Austin said about Handle’s posts. “He has the absolute right to free speech. I’ve tried to caution him about being conservative to preserve our position.”
She said she doesn’t want to seem “dramatic” or “publicity-seeking” with the complaints.
“The whole purpose is not for the publicity,” Austin said. “It is to correct the wrong that are there, champion good officers.”
In his TikTok bio, Handle describes himself as “Corruption Whistle Blower.”
Using screenshots of documents and news clips, Handle calls out Grogan and Espinoza by name for alleged misconduct in handling the claims of racial and sexual harassment. He posted a 10-part TikTok series on June 3 that started with the tag “Why ‘Good Cops don’t speak up’” outlining his complaints and alleged retaliation against him.
The videos about the alleged misconduct receive anywhere from 20,000 to 600,000 views, according to the view count on TikTok as of Aug. 12. Handle has about 104,000 followers on the app as of Aug. 12.
Handle said most of his feedback has been positive, and commenters on the video have complimented him for speaking up, some calling for an actual television series about his complaints.
Before he posted the first video about the alleged misconduct Handle said he was nervous about the reception, but then he started getting messages from other former and current officers expressing similar problems in their departments.
“I was terrified when I posted the very first video about it, to the point that I probably made it private over five different times,” Handle said. “That’s how scared I was that they were going to use this as a way to excuse what they were doing to us.”
He first teased his story in a video posted on May 4 that uses the first part of a meme before becoming more serious.
“Stay tuned for a story about how half a dozen police officers stood up to corruption from the upper command,” Handle said in the video, which has more than 150,000 views as of Aug. 12.
His next video, revealing the department’s name, was posted on May 11, the same day his Georgia Peace Officer Standards Training Council record notes that he was terminated from DPD. He started working at the department in April 2018.
Handle said he started his TikTok while an officer at DPD. Some of the first TikTok videos on Handle’s account that show him in uniform were posted in February 2020. Whenever he posted lighthearted, funny videos, he said he would blur out the department’s name.
Similar videos of police officers in uniform posting joke videos trend on TikTok, and the #copsoftiktok hashtag has more than 3 billion views.
Handle said one of his videos went viral, gaining him followers and eventually a platform to express his complaints to a wide audience.