UPDATED (6/8/22): This article was updated to include a response from Felton Foushee, a District 1 city council candidate who received a donation from the Greensboro Police Association earlier this year.
In a lengthy statement released on Monday, Amiel J. Rossabi, the attorney representing former Greensboro police officer Matthew Hamilton, called the indictment against Hamilton a “tragic result for Greensboro’s citizens.”
The full statement, which was uploaded online by FOX8, notes that Hamilton’s actions when he killed Joseph Lopez were “consistent with GPD and State of North Carolina training and standards” leading up to the shooting, which Rossabi blames on the “very little lighting in the shed.” Rossabi also writes that the law justifies Hamilton’s actions because it states that officers are “justified in using deadly physical force upon another person…when it is or appears reasonably necessary thereby: a. to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force…”
Rossabi writes that Hamilton believed he needed to defend himself because “Lopez turned towards Officer Hamilton with a black object in his hand that resembled a handgun and pointed it towards Officer Hamilton.” The police report and body-worn camera footage as viewed by attorney Graham Holt did not show that Lopez had a gun. Rossabi also notes this in his memo.
“The fact that Mr. Lopez ended up not having a gun on this occasion is immaterial,” he writes.
This is not Rossabi’s first time defending a Greensboro police officer. In fact, he and his partner Gavin Reardon, currently represent the Greensboro Police Officers Association, a local political PAC made up of members of the Greensboro Police Department. On their website, one of the benefits of being a member of the association is 24/7 legal representation through Rossabi Law Partners to “provide advice and consultation with GPOA members who have been involved in an officer-involved use of deadly force, a critical incident, a situation of grave importance or other serious job-related incident.”
In the past, the law firm represented the association in a case before the NC Supreme Court on whether city council members should be allowed to speak publicly about police body-worn camera footage from an incident in 2016.
As a political PAC, the association has the ability to make contributions to political campaigns for those running for elected office. According to campaign finance reports from earlier this year, the Greensboro Police Officers Association has made donations to three political candidates: incumbent Mayor Nancy Vaughan, District 1 city council candidate Felton Foushee, and current at-large representative and at-large city council candidate Hugh Holston.
Foushee is running against incumbent Sharon Hightower after coming in second place during the primary election with 12.9 percent of the vote. Holston, who was chosen to fill the seat left vacant by former city council person Michelle Kennedy in Sept. 2021, placed fourth during the primary elections for the at-large seat behind incumbents Yvonne Johnson and Marikay Abuzuaiter. The top six vote-getters from the primary election will face off on July 26 for two at-large seats. The fifth place candidate for at-large is Katie Rossabi, who is married to Amiel Rossabi and said in a campaign video that Marcus Smith “died in the ambulance after police officers humanely helped him get assistance.” Smith died from a homicide by police after they hogtied him. His family was awarded $2.57 million in a civil suit against the city of Greensboro and the police department this past February.
Records show that on March 2, the Greensboro Police Officers Association made a $500 donation to both Foushee and Holston. On May 1, the association made a $1,000 donation to incumbent Mayor Nancy Vaughan.
In a statement via text on Tuesday, Vaughan responded to questions about the indictment against Hamilton and the civil lawsuit filed by Lopez.
“I have not seen the lawsuit,” she said. “I assume it contains many of the items alleged in the Marcus Smith case that the judge dismissed. In the interest of transparency, I have been working with the city attorney and the city manager to release the [body-worn camera footage]. In the event the judge does not allow the [body-worn camera footage] to be released publicly, I’ve asked our legal department to petition the judge to allow us to view it and speak about what we see.”
Vaughan did not respond to a question about the police association’s recent donation to her campaign.
In a text statement on Monday, Vaughan’s opponent Justin Outling said that he has also asked “the city manager to begin the process of asking the court for permission for the council and the public to see the police-worn body camera video of the incident.”
Outling is running for mayor against Vaughan and has been on city council as the District 3 representative since 2015.
“The indictment of a Greensboro Police Department officer for manslaughter in the death of Joseph Thomas Lee Lopez once more draws our attention to larger issues of police and community interactions,” Outling wrote. “There is much we do not know, and will not know, until the officer’s trial.”
“There will be some who portray the issues associated with events such as these as a choice between public safety and police accountability, as if those two things cannot co-exist,” Outling continued. “I reject that viewpoint and have been consistent in expressing the idea that we must view law enforcement through a lens of high appreciation for the work officers perform, high standards which they must meet in their conduct and high accountability for their actions in accordance with the position of trust they hold.”
Holston, who was reached by phone on Tuesday afternoon, said that he’s “proud of all of the donations” he receives.
“I’m not bought and sold by anyone,” Holston said. “I am a person who looks at a situation and will make a determination based on its merits and based on its benefits for the city of Greensboro. There is not one of my endorsers who under any stretch of the imagination that I’m in their pocket. I’m not in anyone’s pocket. I’m in the pocket of the citizen’s of Greensboro.”
Asked about people who may still be concerned that he receiving money from a PAC that defends officers involved in shootings and killings, Holston said, “Just look at the actions that you have from your elected officials and that should be a good guide. There should not be any implication that because one has received money from any organization that they’re going to make decisions based on those groups. Those groups are making decisions to support candidates who support them and I do support the police officers, I do support public safety, that’s one of my key provisions. That doesn’t mean that it is a blind support.”
Holston also said that he is in support of releasing the body-worn camera footage to the city council and to the public.
“I think it’s good to get all of the information out there, to get all of the details out in front of the people that we are responsible to,” he said. “Council members are simply stewards of the people of Greensboro.”
Reached by phone on Wednesday, District 1 candidate Felton Foushee said that his stance on police accountability has not changed since he started his run for office.
“I want to see things work the way they should if you’re in the wrong,” Foushee said. “And if you’re a police officer, as I’ve stated on multiple occasions, there’s a level of responsibility that comes with that job.”
As a Black man, Foushee said that he understands the level of distrust that some communities of color have towards police, but that police aren’t going anywhere.
“I’m in the same place I was before I received any donations,” Foushee said. “I said this to [the police association]: The police aren’t going anywhere, the community isn’t going anywhere. We can’t keep having moments where there’s no rational conversation or thought to what actually occurred. Everything is not a black-and-white issue, there’s a lot of gray. And it’s got to be unpacked and communicated and hopefully understood so that when situations like this occur, there’s not this extreme polarization that leads to an inability for people to talk that aren’t going anywhere. We have to have open lines of communication. That means transparency, that means releasing the body-camera footage…that means true accountability and proper punishment for those that act outside of the law, no matter which side you are on.”
As far as the actions taken by the district attorney in presenting evidence to the grand jury which led to Hamilton’s indictment, Foushee said that “so far this is taking place in the way that it should.”
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