• The Lamplighter Project

In the News [USA Today]: Whistleblower cops face a system built to beat them down

This article features a board member of The Lamplighter Project and originally appears here on USA Today. The article was syndicated via Yahoo! News here. This article is also continuation of USA Today's "Behind the Blue Wall" series and was also published in the print edition of USA Today on 10 December 2021.


Due to length, the following is an excerpt of the entire article. Readers are encouraged to read the original article on USA Today via the above hyperlink(s) highlighted in yellow.

 

As Originally by Daphne Duret, USA TODAY Published 9:44 PM EST Dec. 9, 2021 | Updated 10:41 PM EST Dec. 15, 2021

“They control the narrative.”

Whistleblowers at times also must deal with government and civilian oversight agencies, some with conflicts of interest.

Some civilian boards, like the Office of Police Conduct Review in Minneapolis, bill themselves as “a neutral agencies,” yet the panels that evaluate internal affairs investigations include members of the police department. In other cases, the boards only review complaints that have gone through the police department first, leaving whistleblowers with no independent way to make claims of misconduct to them without alerting their supervisors.

Employment agencies can also be of little help to officers who consider themselves whistleblowers. In the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, now former officer Austin Handle and transport officer Brian Bolden battled two separate groups behind their retaliation claims.


Last year, they accused a department lieutenant of sending photos of his genitals to other male officers and that he had allegedly demanded they do the same in order to get lucrative overtime jobs. Handle and Bolden never received any such texts from him but said they and others in the department were bullied and targeted for minor infractions because they weren’t in the lieutenant’s inner circle.

A subsequent internal affairs investigation concluded the lieutenant had sent the texts to several officers but found no proof that officers who played along received better assignments. The lieutenant was allowed to resign.


Dunwoody police fired Handle three days later, a decision later upheld by the city manager. Investigators concluded he lied to them several times during an unrelated internal investigation into claims that he sped through his neighborhood and activated his lights and sirens to avoid being late for a shift.

Handle, then a 24-year-old officer who had amassed a large following on TikTok, later wrote to a state agency that he had used the social media platform a week before he was fired to hint that he would soon reveal how he and other officers spoke out against corruption in the department.


“For them, they are the truth. They control the narrative, and if you don't believe them or you point out that what they're saying can't be true, well then the response is always that you're not speaking facts," Handle said.

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan said he could not comment on the specifics of either case.

“We’ve done a really good job of developing a team of good officers,” Grogan said, adding that his department was created only 13 years ago and doesn’t have “the historical bad habits of a lot of older departments.”

Austin Handle (l) and Officer Brian Bolden. Handle said he was fired from Dunwoody's Police Department, and Bolden said he was targeted with bogus internal affairs investigations, after they complained about a lieutenant who was allegedly trading lucrative overtime assignments for sexual favors from other officers within the department.

LYNSEY WEATHERSPOON FOR USA TODAY


“We’re more like a family,” he said.

But when Handle filed for unemployment, Dunwoody fought the claim, using the findings of the internal investigation against him. The employment board ruled in the department’s favor and denied Handle’s claim.

He appealed, and lost again. Finally, on his last round of appeals, the employment board in October overturned the denials, finding that Dunwoody police had produced insufficient proof to support its claim that Handle was fired for being dishonest.

Dunwoody police can still contest the law behind the ruling. Handle, who hasn't received his unemployment benefits, had to take a job at a home improvement store to make ends meet. He now works for a disaster relief agency.


Bolden, who still works for the department, is one of four Dunwoody officers who in 2020 filed claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against their department. Bolden alleges that supervisors have targeted him for bogus internal affairs investigations, including one investigation initiated by the now-resigned lieutenant, who Bolden said falsely accused him of stealing energy bars from a break room.

The EEOC sent a letter to Bolden saying the agency was suffering a backlog of cases and wouldn’t have time to address his claims, adding that he had the right to sue if he wanted.

Doing so will make him subject to the Georgia Whistleblower Act, which legal scholars as recently as last year have criticized as having been “reduced to a state of uselessness” by a series of state court decisions that have made it increasingly difficult for whistleblowers to win...


USA TODAY reporters Brett Murphy and Gina Barton contributed to this story.

Daphne Duret is a reporter on USA TODAY's investigative team and a 2021-22 Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow at the University of Michigan. Contact Daphne at dduret@gannett.com, @dd_writes, by signal at 772-486-5562.

 

This is an excerpt from the total article. Readers are encouraged to read the original article on USA Today via the following hyperlink(s) highlighted in yellow. This article features a board member of The Lamplighter Project and originally appears here on USA Today. The article was syndicated via Yahoo! News here.