New WSU police chief is a talker, not a fighter
For Sara Morris, WSU’s new police chief, words are her greatest weapon.
“Verbal judo” as she calls it, is something she’s carried with her through 28 years of law enforcement experience at the Wichita and WSU police departments.
“I’m a talker,” she says. “I’d much rather talk myself out of situation than fight myself out of a situation.”
Morris, who took over for former WSU Police Chief Paul Dotson as chief in June, says it’s something she’s always brought to the table. Her propensity for spending a little extra time chatting as a street cop initially frustrated some of her partners, she says.
But, as she rose to be the Wichita Police Department’s first female robbery/homicide detective, and the department’s first officer directly promoted to homicide, it often worked as an asset.
“You speak for them,” she says of homicide victims. “Somebody’s got to be their voice. Somebody’s got to find justice for them.”
Speaking is what she did. She remembers how during her first major case, the Michael Marsh investigation, she did more than a dozen interviews with Marsh. They ultimately yielded his confession of killing a mother and her young daughter.
“I was able to go back to him repeatedly with questions,” she says. “When it actually went to trial, they told me later Michael told his attorneys they had to be nice to me on the stand because I had treated him with respect.”
As Morris approached the 20-year mark in the WPD, Dotson encouraged her to finish her master’s after 17 years out of school, she says. She finished her degree, and in 2005, he convinced her to come work for him at WSU.
With higher education came new opportunities. The WSU Criminal Justice Program recruited her to teach intro courses. In the classroom, she says she again found herself chatting—getting to know her students’ strengths and weaknesses.
A mother of two, she had watched her son struggle taking tests. She says she tried to go the extra step to help those with similar troubles, sometimes giving oral exams to students who struggled with writing.
After working third and fourth watch for years, where many of those she came in contact with were “future criminals,” she says working at a university was an adjustment.
“Over here, it’s this big flip flop,” she says. “The big percentage are future leaders. It was exciting. It’s been a neat change, a very positive change.”
“One thing that I think is special about Sara is she has a good sense of humor, but yet if she needs to address a tough and serious situation, she’s very capable and experienced in doing that.”
WSU Police Capt. Cecil Hashenberger, Morris’s partner for eight years, agreed. He says she’s the kind of cop who can balance being personable—having lunch with colleagues one day, and sometimes having to be the professional to write a ticket or investigate them the next.
He says her years doing undercover and homicide investigations uniquely prepared her.
“That’s no small job,” he says. “That gives you a lot of insight into the inside of people’s heads. That can be a scary situation when you start getting into people’s heads.”
As the new chief, Morris says she’s still doing this.
She says with a new residence hall and ongoing construction on campus, listening has been imperative. She’s working on projects to improve safety and investigating the potential for a shuttle system on campus to help with parking concerns.
But first, she’s trying to keep her ear to the ground. She’s out there again talking with students, faculty and parents, trying to find out what a quickly growing and changing community wants and needs.
“It helps me see the big picture, what are people needing to know,” she says. “It’s all learning. Every day is going to throw something new at you.”