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Franklin County D.A. creates race and equity advisory board

Matt Fogal has earned criticism and praise for his support of Black Lives Matter. Now he wants to give the community a platform.

  • Anthony Orozco
The Franklin County Courthouse in Chambersburg, Pa.

 Via Creative Commons

The Franklin County Courthouse in Chambersburg, Pa.

(Chambersburg) — On the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal announced his new advisory board on equity and race.

He said he hopes the panel will help his office remain mindful and adaptive to the needs and concerns of the community, particularly people of color.

“When we’re able to hear anecdotally and establish relationships with folks in the community, to learn that on a consistent basis, we’re better able to do our jobs,” Fogal said.

The board does not make decisions on the DA’s processes and procedures. Instead, its mission is to be a sounding board for the office to receive feedback and input on issues regarding criminal justice. The ten-member board is filled with engaged community members, almost all of whom are Black.

Maria Banks is a co-chairperson of the board and a truancy and outreach coordinator with the Chambersburg Area School District. She had been in contact on and off with Fogal in recent years to discuss alternatives to punitive measures for the student population she serves.

Following the outrage of Floyd’s murder, Banks reconnected with Fogal. The DA offered her to be a part of the new board.

“Matt is very receptive and willing to listen,” Banks said. “It just became this very affirming, reciprocal partnership.”

Banks said she is interested in looking at ways the community can heal after suffering trauma, whether from everyday crimes committed by and against community members, or instances of police brutality.

Hundreds of people filled the street outside Lebanon’s courthouse at a Black Lives Matter protest in early June

Alanna Elder / WITF

Hundreds of people filled the street outside Lebanon’s courthouse at a Black Lives Matter protest in early June.

As Franklin County’s head prosecutor, Fogal said his job is not only focused on putting people in jail. He said he can use his position to examine if the current processes of criminal justice are actually working to benefit the community.

“Criminal laws are really owned by everyone, it’s a social compact, it’s not something that should be designed to be thrust upon somebody, it’s everyone’s agreement with each other,” Fogal said. “When that community is invested in that, that’s when things are working.”

Fogal drew attention and criticism last summer as the nation grappled with a racial reckoning. The Franklin County GOP censured Fogal for his support of the movement and statement, Black Lives Matter.

Fogal was originally appointed as District Attorney in 2009 after the death of D.A. Jack Nelson. Fogal switched voter registration from Independent to Republican when he ran for the office in 2015. Fogal left the Republican Party late last year and is now “not affiliated,” often referred to as independent.

Lance Walker is the other co-chairperson on Fogal’s advisory board and a member of the Chambersburg School Board. He also owns a barbershop in the city.

Walker said Fogal’s efforts to address and fight racial inequities in criminal justice is momentous.

“For him to recognize that there is a problem and a disconnect between the citizens and the police force, I thought that was huge for me,” he said.

Lance Walker with a customer at his shop in Chambersburg.

Dani Fresh / Keystone Crossroads

Lance Walker, co-chair of the advisory board on equity and race, with a customer at his shop in Chambersburg.

Walker has been on his own journey to inspire dialogue and understanding in his community after years of divisive national politics.  He said he sees being on the board as another means to bring people from seemingly disparate perspectives closer together.

“My hope is that we can get a clear and good understanding between the Black and Brown community and law enforcement,” Walker said. “So we don’t have over-policing or we don’t have a lack of understanding of the citizens that are being policed.”

The board was formed at the end of last summer and worked sporadically over the winter. Since it has now been formally announced, board members said they are excited to continue their work in educating others and themselves.

They said they are planning a possible trip to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, this summer to learn more about the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Fogal said while his stances on racial justice have garnered op-eds and headlines, at the end of the day, he is trying to learn as much as he can.

“I want to be as informed as I can be, in this moment, about perspectives and the community,” Fogal said. “I hope I don’t have the hubris to think that I already know that … without talking to individuals here.”

Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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