Esther Lemus, a Sonoma County deputy district attorney with deep roots in southwest Santa Rosa, has been appointed to lead a community outreach program focused on preventing and solving neighborhood problems.
Lemus, named "Safe Neighborhoods D.A.," will teach existing gang prevention classes alongside Santa Rosa police officers, coordinate a youth gun information program and attend public meetings to hear neighborhood crime concerns.
Lemus said it's a job she's dreamed of since joining the office in 2007. Until recently, there wasn't enough money in the department budget for it.
"I care about the community," said Lemus, who graduated from Montgomery High School before going to UC Berkeley and UCLA law school. "I've always been committed to our community and committed to our youth."
Lemus is also a member of the Santa Rosa Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force and has been involved in Roseland's annual Cinco de Mayo and Cesar Chavez events.
Before joining the District Attorney's Office she was an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Bay Area and Southern California, worked in private practice and was a law clerk for a bankruptcy judge.
She said the new position, generically known as community prosecutor, will be modeled on similar programs elsewhere across the country.
It could borrow ideas from places like Portland, Ore., where officials sought to eliminate loitering and drug-dealing in a park. The problem was solved by changing the sprinkler timing to make the park less attractive to people who might commit crimes, Lemus said.
Other efforts to make public places safer could include adding lighting or trimming overgrown bushes, she said. The scope of the program is countywide.
"The possibilities are endless," Lemus said. "It's going to be driven by community need."
Lemus spoke Friday afternoon during a meeting at Lincoln Elementary School on West Ninth Street in Santa Rosa. She attended a neighborhood "community safety" meeting at the school the night before.
"I'm available to work with residents, identify crime problems and work proactively to solve them," she told the crowd, which included about 30 residents who showed up to hear what gang-prevention services were on offer to the community and how they could get involved.
Lemus said her family came to Sonoma County from Mexico in search of better opportunities. She went to Cook Middle School and Montgomery High before Elsie Allen High was built closer to her home.
Lemus grew up on Moorland Avenue, not far from where another former Cook student, 13-year-old Andy Lopez, was shot dead last year by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy.
She said it's a subject that has come up in her new role as she talks to Cook students and others as part of a 13-week Gang Resistance Education and Training Program.
But the position is not intended as a response to the shooting, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. She described the timing as coincidental. It's been in the works for a year after the receipt of $1 million in unrelated grant funds that allowed her more staffing flexibility.
"This is not developed to explain what happened or rebuild trust as a result of that tragedy," Ravitch said.
She said the precise job description will evolve as she understands what will serve the community best. The community prosecutor will begin by making existing programs more robust, Ravitch said.
The program will address local crime problems that affect quality of life, work with at-risk youth and partner in initiatives that "make Sonoma County a better place to live," Ravitch said.
"My goal is to make the safest county I can," Ravitch said. "One way to do that is engage people before they commit crimes. I believe a collaborative approach to community programs can bring better results."
(Staff writer Jamie Hansen contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)