The troubling tip came in a month before his suicide.
Sgt. Chris Morris spent more than $2,200 at stores that sold firearms, gun parts and other weapons, a tipster told San Francisco police. And with the officer’s history of violence and drug addiction, the source worried those purchases might endanger Morris, his wife and their 9-year-old son.
“Mr. Morris has severe mental health and addiction problems,” Don Emley, an attorney for the officer’s wife, warned police in an email.
But 35 days passed before police served a search warrant at his home, even though a domestic violence restraining order and a previous intensive mental health detention legally barred Morris from having a gun.
When police came to his home with the warrant June 15, Morris took his own life. He died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
His suicide raises questions about whether the San Francisco Police Department could have done more to stop his downward spiral, and what investigative steps—if any—the department took to determine whether Morris had gotten a hold of a gun in the five weeks after being notified about his purchases.
Morris had a well-documented history of erratic behavior, drug use and what his wife once described as a “very unhealthy obsession with guns” that police knew about for at least two years before his suicide, according to court records obtained by The Standard. In May 2020, the department confiscated a cache of guns from his house, including an AR-15, and detained Morris against his will out of concern for his mental health.
While it’s unclear when Morris was last on active duty, he was on administrative leave at the time of his death.
His death is also driving concerns within the department about why internal affairs investigators executed the search warrant without bringing a SWAT team. The department knew that Morris struggled with drug addiction and had reason to suspect he had acquired a gun. Both of those circumstances, along with his documented obsession with firearms, could make serving the warrant high-risk enough to require a tactical response.
San Francisco police did not answer detailed questions about the Morris case and how it was handled.
The circumstances of the suicide deserve to be interrogated because of the all-too-common tragedy that is a police officer taking their own life, according to Humberto Cardounel, a retired Virginia police chief and internal affairs commander who is now a director with the National Policing Institute.
“A situation like this is not so much a matter of trying to find blame,” Cardounel said, speaking generally without personal knowledge of the case. “If there were shortcomings, we need to fix those shortcomings because we cannot afford to let our men and women continue to go down these dark tunnels.”
So far this year, 63 officers have died by suicide in the U.S., according to Blue Help, an organization that raises awareness about police suicide and mental health issues. Five of those deaths occurred in California.
Morris is not the first San Francisco police officer to find himself in trouble while abusing drugs—or to die by suicide while under investigation. Late last year, another veteran SFPD sergeant was arrested and charged for holding up a Rite Aid in San Mateo County after becoming addicted to painkillers. In 2017, a San Francisco officer killed himself when Richmond police pulled him over in connection with a Las Vegas child sex abuse case.
One Red Flag After Another
Morris, a 16-year veteran of the department, grew up in San Francisco and went to Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. His father, Dennis Morris, is a former city prosecutor. But his life was marked by tragedy and personal hardship. Court records show his twin brother, Gregory Morris, died by suicide in 2009 using a gun Morris procured for him.
The problems escalated for Morris years ago when he injured his back and became addicted to opioid painkillers, court records show.
Morris soon became locked in a contentious divorce and child custody case with his wife, who The Standard is not naming because she reported being the victim of domestic violence. She repeatedly told the court she feared her husband and the sense of immunity he felt his job gave him.
“Chris is an SFPD officer who has significant power that he can and has used to intimidate me and prevent me from seeking help,” his wife said in court records. She declined interview requests through her attorney.
In 2018, Morris’ wife found him passed out in their car when he went missing during a Fourth of July party. Morris said he was sleeping because of insomnia, but she believed he was using drugs.
Drug use seemed to have been only part of the problem.
‘He Raised the Gun to My Face’
Morris’ wife said he spent most of his time isolated downstairs, and “frequently walked around our house while carrying loaded firearms.”
Morris not only held the weapons around his young son, but threatened his wife when she tried to intervene, pointing a gun at her.
“Chris was irritated—possibly because I wouldn’t let him near [our son] when he raised the gun to my face—and snickered,” his wife said in court records.
Photographs his wife filed in court records show Morris cradling what looks like a gun while sitting in a chair at home with his son nearby.
Another incident involved Morris shooting his wife in the foot with an airsoft rifle after she asked him to get a gun away from their son.
Morris’ behavior was so erratic and strange that his wife often locked herself and her son in her room, she said in court records.
Morris defended himself in court records, saying he was attending substance abuse and anger management treatment and meeting his obligations to test clean for drugs. He also denied threatening or abusing his wife and son.
“I am … no threat to [my son] and have never been,” Morris said in filings.
Some time after these incidents, Morris’ wife said he kicked her and their son out of their home in the middle of the initial Covid lockdown. She later said she fled because she feared for her safety and called police.
“Something bad is going to happen and I have to get proactive to make sure it doesn’t,” his wife said in court documents.
Morris’ wife obtained a temporary restraining order against Morris to protect herself and her son in May 2020.
The next day, police seized 10 guns from his home and held him involuntarily for intensive mental health treatment, court records show.
The hold and restraining order barred him from having guns for five years.
In court records, Morris’ wife once worried that “Chris’ opioid addiction, mental health, and his unresolved problems with anger, make in-person exposure to him eventually very dangerous.”
‘A Shock and Surprise’
His troubles came to a head when an attorney representing his wife uncovered bank records showing Morris made 13 purchases from retailers that sold firearms, weapon parts and airsoft guns.
While it’s unclear what he bought, the transactions totalled about $2,200 over a one-year period beginning in July 2020.
On May 11, the attorney shared his discovery with an internal affairs investigator in an email that included a foreboding message.
“Apart from the criminal implications of Mr. Morris possessing firearms, [his wife] is concerned for the safety of the child she shares with Mr. Morris, her own safety, and Mr. Morris’ safety,” Emley wrote. “There is a history of suicide in his family. A firearm was used in one case.”
A month later, on June 15, internal affairs investigators went to Morris’ house on Moscow Street near Russia Avenue in the Excelsior with a search warrant.
Morris’ attorney went with them.
It’s not known what happened next, but Morris ultimately took his own life.
“We were very concerned that something awful would happen and that Sgt. Morris would do something awful,” Emley said in an interview. “The fact that he actually did it did come as a shock and a surprise.”
‘They’re Hoping Not to Escalate’
Law enforcement experts differ in their opinions about how police dealt with the case, and specifically the search warrant.
David Thomas, a retired officer and professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, said Morris being a member of the department could explain why internal affairs didn’t bring a SWAT team to serve the warrant.
“He is a police officer,” Thomas said. “He is from that agency. I’m sure in their mind, they’re hoping not to escalate that [situation]. The idea would be to do it low key.”
Cardounel, the former chief and internal affairs commander, said there could be legitimate reasons for the 35 days between police receiving the bank records and executing the warrant. They might have needed more evidence to prove Morris purchased a firearm or gun parts from the stores, rather than other items.
Not everyone agrees.
To Seth Stoughton, a professor of law and criminology at University of South Carolina, SFPD appears to have taken an excessive amount of time to serve the warrant under the circumstances.
“This case seems about as straightforward as it gets,” Stoughton said. “It sounds like the agency treated this as a lower priority than it might have had the subject not been an officer. But I’m very curious as to who made that call and why.”