GREENSBORO — A police officer was indicted for manslaughter and fired by the department on Monday — the same day that the father of a 29-year-old man filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officer in the November 2021 death of his son.
Officer Matthew Hamilton was among officers responding to a “wanted person call” when he found Joseph Lopez in a storage shed behind a Cloverdale Drive address in north Greensboro. The resident of the home, according to police, requested help after an individual attempted to enter.
“While confronting the subject, one officer discharged their weapon striking the subject,” a news release from police said at the time.
Officers and EMS personnel attempted life-saving measures before Lopez was pronounced dead.
Attorney Amiel Rossabi described Hamilton as a 15-year veteran with an “exemplary” record and one of 10 responding officers that Friday night.
“The officer is facing a serious felony charge for doing his job in accordance with training and experience that he has received from the Greensboro Police Department,” Rossabi said after the indictment. “That is an absolute travesty.”
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Attorneys representing Lopez’s father, who is suing on behalf of his son’s estate, say they are pleased that Hamilton has been charged. Flint Taylor, a high-profile attorney who specializes in police brutality cases, said Joe Lopez had dealing with the loss of his son while fighting for answers.
“It was not only frustrating, but it was something that made people pessimistic about whether justice would be done in the sense of an indictment,” Taylor said.
Neither City Attorney Chuck Watts nor Mayor Nancy Vaughan said they could comment on the lawsuit, which they had not seen.
Earlier in the day, civil rights activists had stood with Joe Lopez on the grounds of the Beloved Community Center before the indictment was made public. Some of those present were instrumental in keeping the death of Marcus Smith, a homeless Black man, and others in the public eye after accusations of excessive force by police.
The Smith family’s wrongful death suit against the city and Guilford County over excessive restraining was settled last year for just over $2.5 million.
“It doesn’t seem to matter how many times we say enough is enough — it never really stops,” lamented Hester Petty, who could often be found as part of the “Mondays for Marcus” protest in front of City Hall.
Joe Lopez did not speak at the press conference, but Taylor called for Hamilton to be indicted — setting into motion what could be another controversial battle between the city and community over the police’s treatment of those it’s supposed to serve and protect, particularly minorities.
The city is being sued in Lopez’s death, according to the lawsuit, because of failing to properly train, supervise and discipline officers and an “unconstitutional pattern and practice of using excessive and deadly force disproportionately against persons of color.”
“He was shot down by Matt Hamilton, but also the policies and practices of the Greensboro Police Department,” Taylor said.
According to the complaint, which was drafted with details from the footage of police body cameras that co-counsel Graham Holt was allowed to view, officers arrived at the Cloverdale Drive residence and found Joseph Lopez in a small room located at the rear of a two-car garage. Hamilton opened the door of the room with his police dog on a leash, according to the suit.
It would be the second time in a week Lopez had been found on the property, but he had surrendered peacefully after talking with a Guilford County Sheriff’s deputy. This time, law enforcement would find him sitting in a chair behind two couches.
“Greensboro police,” Hamilton can be heard saying on the video. “If you’re in there, make yourself known.”
Lopez replied: “Yes, I’m here.”
According to the lawsuit, Hamilton told Lopez to come out with his hands up or that he would send his dog inside.
Lopez said he would come out when it was safe.
Hamilton then released the police dog into the room where Lopez was sitting on a chair, according to Holt’s description of the video.
The lawsuit claims that seconds later, Hamilton walked through the door, drew his handgun and shot Lopez in the face.
Taylor says Hamilton is later seen on video, telling other officers he saw something in Lopez’s hand — which the attorney claimed was the beginning of a coverup.
Rossabi, who represents Hamilton, says the lawsuit misrepresents key details and that there was no coverup. For instance, prior to the shooting, police were especially cautious because of an earlier interaction involving Lopez, who had been charged in the days before the incident with possession of a firearm by a felon and assault with a deadly weapon.
Also, Lopez ignored Hamilton’s commands to leave the shed.
“As a result, Officer Hamilton released his K-9 partner, which normally yields an immediate result,” Rossabi said.
Because the K-9 hadn’t signaled Lopez was under control, Hamilton continued to give commands and ultimately entered the shed, Rossabi said.
“Mr. Lopez immediately turned towards Officer Hamilton with a black object in his hand that resembled a handgun and pointed it towards Officer Hamilton,” Rossabi said.
Hamilton fired one shot, killing Lopez.
It was later discovered, however, that Lopez didn’t have a gun.
Rossabi pointed to state statutes about the use of deadly force and said that his client followed them all.
“Police officers need to know that they can do their jobs under the protection of North Carolina laws,” Rossabi said.
After the shooting, Hamilton was placed on administrative duty, which is department policy.
Rossabi said he was “disappointed” that District Attorney Avery Crump did not give his client adequate notice so that he could present evidence before the grand jury. Crump could not be reached for comment.
“It was unfair to subject Officer Hamilton to this grand jury process when all of the evidence shows that he followed the law,” Rossabi said. “The fact that Mr. Lopez ended up not having a gun on this occasion is immaterial.”
Taylor said the lawsuit would proceed in hopes of changing the culture of the city’s police force.