Ravitch responded to public outcry over the Lopez shooting by publishing her detailed report on the investigation that cleared Deputy Erick Gelhaus of any criminal wrongdoing. Although the decision on Gelhaus was met with criticism from activists and the Latino community, her move to air the report marked the first time a Sonoma County district attorney had taken such a step.
Ravitch also has sought to quell some of the rancor among staff members over her often-brusque management style, promoting a supporter of her election rival, former deputy prosecutor Victoria Shanahan.
“I listened very carefully whenever criticism was lodged about how I run the office,” Ravitch said, reflecting on her experience. “I continue to encourage anybody … to be in touch with me and discuss with me what concerns are there.”
Some said the new level of openness and the apparent olive branch after a bitter campaign that divided the legal community are signs Ravitch is growing into her job as the county’s top prosecutor.
Prominent Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian, who was openly critical of Ravitch during her first term, said he is optimistic about the next four years.
“I’ve had my differences with her but she carried the day and deserves the support of all in the community to make it work,” Andrian said.
Ravitch, 56, was sworn in last week to a second term after defeating Shanahan by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in the June election.
She acknowledged the difficult year, in which she made national headlines with her decision in the Lopez case. The Santa Rosa teen was shot by Gelhaus seven times after he reportedly mistook an airsoft BB gun the youth was carrying for an AK-47 rifle.
At the same time, Ravitch was reeling from personal loss. Her elderly father died a week before she was re-elected and her mother passed away six months earlier in December.
She stepped from the crucible of her first term a more seasoned manager than when she was first elected in 2010.
“If you’re not challenged, you can’t grow in your role,” Ravitch said. “I think all I faced, I like to think it made me a more effective and stronger leader.”
The county’s first woman district attorney admits her first four years came with a steep learning curve. Upon arrival in 2011, she was hit with a public relations debacle when a deputy prosecutor settled a fatal crash before the victim died.
Also, bleak economic conditions forced her to cut her $24 million budget by 25 percent, a problem that was compounded by an 11th-hour hiring spree by her predecessor, Stephan Passalacqua.
Later that year, Ravitch was facing another major hurdle when the Legislature shifted responsibility for many non-violent inmates from the state to counties, further straining local resources.
Ravitch avoided layoffs among her 118 employees by applying for program-based grants that expanded prosecution of elder abuse and domestic violence. She has since added one management position to the office.
She went on to fulfill a campaign pledge by becoming the first district attorney in the county in decades to try her own murder case. Some viewed it as a publicity stunt when the veteran prosecutor won a conviction against Healdsburg resident Jarrod Miller, who was sentenced to 50 years to life in the shooting death of a childhood friend. But others called it refreshing.
Ravitch said it was part of an effort to mentor newer prosecutors, which included getting managers back into the courtroom.
But criticism mounted about that time that Ravitch was more concerned with re-election than running her office effectively. She was accused of cronyism for hiring or promoting campaign supporters and she struggled with turnover at the helm of the Family Justice Center, a clearinghouse for services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.
A group of senior prosecutors complained Ravitch was ignoring their concerns and Shanahan announced she would challenge her boss for re-election. Many of Ravitch’s former supporters switched their allegiance.
Two months later, Santa Rosa erupted in protest over the Oct. 22, 2013, shooting of Lopez. Shanahan criticized Ravitch for not handing off the case to state prosecutors, saying Ravitch had a conflict because she campaigned alongside Gelhaus’ boss, Sheriff Steve Freitas.
But Ravitch, who had the backing of the Board of Supervisors as well as law enforcement chiefs, breezed to victory. The win amid a trying period served as proof of her fortitude, supporters said.
“I can’t even imagine having to go through all she did, personally and professionally and in running a campaign,” said Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, a longtime Ravitch supporter. “It just proves what a strong person she is.”
After the election, Ravitch announced she would not file criminal charges against Gelhaus, triggering more protest. But in a departure from previous district attorneys, she released a 94-page report on her investigation, posting it on her website.
Ravitch has since released reports on four other fatal incidents involving law enforcement, citing a need for more openness.
“There is a belief among all that as much transparency as possible will help the community understand the process,” Ravitch said.
People express gratitude for her efforts, she said. They walk up to her in stores or on the street, saying they recognize her from news photos, and comment.
“A guy stopped me at Starbucks,” Ravitch said. “He said, ‘Tough job. You’re doing well.’ ”
Now, Ravitch is rebuilding her office after a fractious election season that saw the departure of several senior attorneys, including Shanahan and her supporter, Traci Carrillo, who won murder convictions two years ago against Asian Boyz gang members and was lead prosecutor in a Forestville triple-murder case.
With a brighter budget picture, she’s recruiting a new second-in-command to guide deputy prosecutors handling about 19,000 cases a year. Late last year, she promoted Shanahan ally Troye Shaffer to be the new chief deputy.
She also expects to roll out a new case management system that will allow her to track courtroom statistics. In her first four years, she did not release her office’s conviction rate despite her own sharp criticism of Passalacqua’s rate.
Andrian, who parted ways with Ravitch during the election, said he met with her recently and discussed their differences. He said they shook hands and “agreed to move forward.”
Before the election, Andrian criticized her about declining morale among top prosecutors in the office.
“Now that (the election) is over, it doesn’t mean Jill shouldn’t pay attention to those things,” Andrian said. “I think she’s aware of that.”
Ravitch says an overall goal is to bring stability to a department that has changed considerably since former District Attorney Gene Tunney ran it for three decades through the mid-1990s.
But Ravitch, who will turn 60 at the end of her second term, would not say if she will run again. Right now, she says she’s focused on working with her criminal justice partners to make sure the county is as safe as possible.
“It’s full steam ahead for me,” Ravitch said. “I plan to be district attorney until the voters say otherwise.”