A state employment board has reversed a decision that did not allow a former police officer turned whistleblower to receive unemployment benefits, according to documents obtained by The Reporter.

In October, The Department of Labor Board of Review issued a ruling in the case of Austin Handle, a former Dunwoody police officer who was fired from the department on May 11, 2020 in what he alleges was a case of retaliation for speaking up about officer misconduct. 

In 2020, multiple department employees alleged that former Lt. Fidel Espinoza sexually harassed them and in some cases asked for sexual favors for work benefits. While Handle did not claim that Espinoza harassed him personally, he said he was aware of it and received harassment in other ways. Handle posted a video to TikTok the week before he was fired, hinting he would speak up about police corruption. However, he did not name the Dunwoody Police Department until a later video.

@officer.ash

#stitch with @officerash Sorry, you don’t scare me anymore. There’s no room for corrupt cops. #tiktokcops #corruption #harassment #standupforyourself

♬ original sound – Austin Handle

The department has previously denied all of Handle’s claims and said that Handle was fired due to a separate internal affairs investigation that found he allegedly used his police car’s emergency equipment and sped through his neighborhood, which is a violation of department policy. The investigation also said Handle allegedly lied about it to command staff. 

According to Handle, when he initially filed for unemployment, the employment board ruled in favor of Dunwoody and denied him, using the findings of the internal investigation against him. On Sept. 8, an administrative hearing officer for the Department of Labor upheld the initial decision to deny Handle benefits. But an October ruling by the board of review reversed that decision and found that the department did not have enough evidence to support a claim that Handle lied during the investigation. 

“The board of review, finally and thankfully … reversed the prior findings and ruled in my favor, granting me benefits,” Handle said. 

Handle said he has not yet received the unemployment benefits. He now serves as the vice chair of the Lamplighter Project, a nonprofit organization that encourages whistleblowing activity in law enforcement.

In an emailed statement, DPD spokesperson Sgt. Robert Parsons said the city did not receive adequate warning for the Sept. 8 hearing and was not able to participate. He further stated that much of the documentation the department previously submitted in the case had allegedly been excluded from the Sept. 8 hearing. 

Parsons said that on Dec. 2, the city filed a petition for judicial review in the Superior Court of DeKalb County to reopen the appeal hearing. 

“The Department firmly stands by its separation decision,” Parsons said in an email. “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.”

Handle said he was glad an external agency outside of the city and police department had the chance to review his case.

“You can’t just generate an internal affairs document or have an internal affairs investigation and write it down that this is what happened and that [is] the truth,” Handle said. “[The board of review] actually ruled that there was not enough evidence to justify my termination.”

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.