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Wichita State University's new chief of police is a tough trailblazer

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 8:19 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 11:23 p.m.

Sara Morris, the new chief of police at Wichita State University, used to put killers in prison.

In the 1990s, while six months pregnant and working for the Wichita police, she helped put Michael Marsh of Wichita in prison for life. She talked to him ever so softly and somehow got him to admit how he’d shot a young mother and burned her little girl alive.

Criminal justice leaders loved her. Paul Dotson, a top commander at the Wichita Police Department for years, made her the first person ever promoted directly from street cop to robbery-homicide detective. She was also Wichita’s first female homicide detective, and first female police captain, he said.

She was an excellent homicide detective, said longtime district attorney Nola Foulston, who served for 24 years until retiring from the office last year.

The police chief job at WSU might seem like a quieter occupation: investigating thefts, giving talks to prevent sexual assault, watching over the mental health of staff and students.

That’s the job she took over this week, replacing her longtime mentor Dotson, who retired after 10 years at WSU.

The quieter work is fine with her, she said.

“With the Wichita police, I worked midnights and 80 percent of the people I talked with every day were future prison inmates,” Morris said. “At WSU, I work days, and 80 to 90 percent of everybody I meet is a future leader of some kind.

“But you learn from everybody.”

What WSU is getting as a new chief is a law enforcement officer who was a trailblazer as a woman and a terrific investigator as a cop, said Foulston, who now works in private law practice.

“She was a law enforcement officer and a mother who had a lot of good instincts,” Foulston said. When Morris got promoted to detective, Foulston said, there were few women in key positions in criminal justice in Wichita, and some of the few who made it were “tokens.” But Morris was no token.

Foulston worked with her on big murder cases and saw that she was as smart and as resourceful as any other detective in what had been, as Foulston put it, “historically and resoundingly an all boys club.”

She did homicide interrogations even while in the late stages of two pregnancies.

Male detectives who at first might have felt reserved about her working as a detective became her promoters and colleagues, Morris said. They noticed she had a knack for getting uncooperative killers to confess, and even gave her technique a name.

“They called it my Mommy Monologues,” Morris said.

To a child killer one time, she confessed her own frustrations as a mother: “Did you ever have one of those days where they just drive you crazy?” She saw that the more she talked like this, the more the guy leaned forward, nodded in agreement. Eventually, he told her how he had committed murder, throwing the child downstairs.

Morris left the Wichita Police Department after 20 years and went to work eight years ago for Dotson, who took over as WSU’s chief in 2003. She has worked there since.

She’s always willingly been a bit of a mother figure, even as a cop. Years ago, when she noticed in the robbery-homicide unit that detectives brought doughnuts to the office that they’d bought, she brought cookies she’d baked herself.

At WSU, she has a habit of handing out socks to officers that she’s made herself – from alpaca fleece that she sheared herself, from a herd of 18 alpacas that she and her family keep on rural land at their home. Her officers like the alpaca socks.

“They are really, really soft and really warm,” she said of the socks.

She grinned.

“They especially like wearing them at Christmas time, when they direct traffic.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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