With the city of Dunwoody possibly facing four lawsuits and a handful of complaints alleging sexual harassment against a former high-ranking police officer, some residents think more could have been done to investigate the claims and worry about the transparency in handling them.
Former Dunwoody Police Lt. Fidel Espinoza, a founding Dunwoody officer popular in the community, resigned in May because of the sexual harassment complaints against him.
Police Chief Billy Grogan published a 146-page report to investigate the claims, which included text messages between Espinoza and fellow officers. He concluded that Espinoza did send sexually explicit photos and messages but did not harass or coerce other officers.
Resident Wayne Radloff said that once he got over the shock of the allegations against Espinoza, he believes the situation shows a lack of accountability in the police department.
“I think for too long our police department has had free rein, almost what I would call a blank check, and they need to be held accountable,” said Radloff, who was recently appointed to the city’s Charter Commission. “While I like the chief’s report, and it’s comprehensive, it begs other questions.”
Radloff and former City Councilmember and state representative Tom Taylor said they wondered about allegations of sexually explicit messages being sent on city-issued cell phones while officers were on the clock. Taylor said he worried the complaints showcase a pattern of behavior in the department.
“I don’t know where it goes,” said Taylor. “It could end here or end further. My concern as a taxpayer is that lawsuits get expensive.” He noted that COVID-19 shutdowns are already affecting the city’s budget.
A second investigation
Radloff said another investigation should be conducted by someone outside the police department, such as the city manager, the city Board of Ethics or an outside organization.
Taylor and former City Councilmember Terry Nall, who ran for mayor last year, agreed that an internal investigation was a good start, but an external investigation may be warranted.
“Even if you believe no stone is left unturned, a second opinion about the investigation into the claims might be helpful in ensuring the public that no stone was left unturned,” said Nall, who complimented the thoroughness of Grogan’s report.
Resident Joe Hirsch said he thought the first internal investigation was a waste of time. “You don’t ask someone who’s being accused of a crime to investigate himself,” Hirsch said. “[Grogan’s] named in the lawsuit. Why is he investigating himself? That makes zero sense.”
Lydia Singleton-Wells, who has led two local protests about racism and police brutality, said she appreciated the investigation but didn’t agree with Grogan’s findings.
“Anytime there is a person in authority who has made any type of sexual advances toward anyone who works for them, then that’s completely and utterly inappropriate,” said Singleton-Wells.
Whether or not the messages constitutes sexual harassment, the residents said, they agreed the conduct was inappropriate. Taylor said he would have fired Espinoza.
Espinoza’s Georgia Peace Officer Standard and Training Council record, which tracks criminal records or sanctions on police officers, does not note the lawsuit, complaints or investigation. His record says that he “voluntarily” resigned from the department.
Taylor, Nall and Hirsch said they worry about that lack of a record.
“It’s a black eye on our police department to let someone resign without indicating that he was under investigation,” Hirsch said.
Under Dunwoody’s government structure, the police chief reports to the city manager, who reports to the mayor and council. Taylor said there should be a more transparent way that the city leadership reviews and establishes police policy. Hirsch said the mayor and council didn’t seem to be aware of these problems before the lawsuit but needed to be.
Radloff said it may be time for new leadership in the police department, citing a lack of diversity in the command staff.
“Now, am I singling out anyone that should be fired? No,” Radloff said. “But this is pretty embarrassing.”
When Grogan released the report publicly on July 2, Mayor Lynn Deutsch put out a statement that called the investigation “thorough” and the report “comprehensive.”
“The report speaks for itself,” Deutsch said in the statement. “The report’s release is an example of the city of Dunwoody’s commitment to provide the public with as much information as possible to promote accountability and trust in government related to all matters.”
Taylor said the report only came after the public already knew about the allegations because of media outlets rather than from city leadership.
Though Taylor said he understands the mayor and council cannot discuss pending litigation, he would have liked a statement before the news reports.
Hirsch said the mayor and council should ignore legal advice and speak on the litigation anyway for full transparency to the public. He said the city isn’t living up to its promises of transparency.
“When the city’s police department constitutes a third of our city’s budget, they should be speaking about it,” Hirsch said. “And there’s nothing actually preventing them from speaking about it.”
Nall said the mayor and council could have told the public they were aware and discussing the lawsuit and allegations, but otherwise have handled everything well so far.
“I know that the police chief and the city manager will do the right things because they value a human-resources approach to how the employees are treated,” Nall said.