What drove retired SFPD official to suicide?

SONOMA, Calif.

I-Team reporter Dan Noyes got word late Wednesday night about what happened. And since then, he made dozens of calls -- every person he spoke with who knew Morris Tabak had only positive things to say about him. They are shocked by this.

The 59-year-old served more than 30 years in the SFPD, retiring as Assistant Chief. He was a familiar, calm face during moments of crisis for the department. Officers and top brass on Thursday described him as "incredibly bright" and "quietly competent." And now he's gone.

Retired SFPD Captain Al Casciato told us, "I'm very very saddened by the news of his death today; I'm in a state of shock. I knew him his entire career."

Wednesday night at 7:45, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department responded to a report of "a despondent and potentially suicidal male" driving a Dodge Durango. It was Morris Tabak. He pulled into the parking lot at the sheriff's substation on Grove Street in Sonoma, left a note for his family, and shot himself with a pistol.

"We're wrestling to understand why and it hurts deeply," Casciato said.

There are so many unanswered questions. Friends say he was not ready to retire, but there was no place for him after then-police chief George Gascon's restructuring.

As Tabak prepared to leave, friends say he was devastated by a New York Times article that named him as "one of the highest-paid employees San Francisco has ever had". With overtime, he earned $425,000 in 2009, and received $225,000 a year pension, plus health benefits. His former colleagues tell Noyes he also badly wanted a chief's job -- and was a serious contender on several occasions, but did not have a college degree. He had returned to college before his death.

Former SFPD Chief Tony Ribera now heads the Criminal Justice Center at USF and told Noyes, "I think it's a very sad day, I think Morris Tabak was very, very well respected by the SFPD, by all his colleagues and he was somebody who could be counted on."

Ribera says departments across the country are grappling with police officer suicide.

An SF Police Officer's Association newsletter from 2010 cited a study that found more than 300 officer suicides across the country each year, and discussed the incredible stress officers face each day.

Ribera said, "You're so focused on helping people with their problems you neglect your own and you keep things inside."

SFPD officers have been talking about this since last night, and are now sending messages on Facebook, trying to understand what happened to a man they so respected.

Ribera added, "They're very saddened and certainly we're saddened for his family, I can't imagine what they must be going through now and all I can say is they're in my prayers."

Tabak's friends and colleagues told Noyes he seemed to retreat after retiring, and wasn't seen often at police social functions. Both Police Chief Greg Suhr and former Chief George Gascon declined to comment for this story. The Sonoma Sheriff's office tells Noyes there really is no investigation to be done -- no sign of anyone else being involved. This is simply a very sad day.

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