TUCSON, Ariz. – Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was thrust into the spotlight to face a nation demanding answers in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. He didn't mince words.
The rampage, he said, grew in part from extreme political rhetoric, bigotry and hatred, especially in his home state of Arizona. Dupnik said he was angry and heartbroken over the tragedy, and was simply speaking his mind as an American, not a law enforcement official.
But in the midst of a national media pressure cooker, his comments raised the question: Did he overstep his authority in making the comments that he did?
His bluntness made the plainspoken lawman a national spokesman of sorts for the belief following the rampage that the country's political rhetoric has gone off the rails. Dupnik said he never intended to do so, but thought it was "time somebody said something."
"I'm a police officer trying to do his job, but on the other hand I'm a person who has to live in America like everyone else," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's a free country, people can say what they want, and I said what I wanted to."
Regardless of his intentions, Dupnik — who turns 75 on Tuesday — has inserted himself into the national political debate and become one of the Internet's most talked-about people. He has refused to back off his statements after taking heat for rushing to judgment about the shooting.
E-mails began pouring into his inbox shortly after his first news conference on the day of the shooting. Some agreed with him, while others vented anger about him and Democrats. Some Republicans have accused him of wrongly using his bully pulpit to make an ill-timed political statement.
"I just felt like it was too bad that he would jump right into that mode when people are just now receiving some of the worst news of their life," said GOP Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona.
Dupnik's comments resonated with many at a time the nation was searching for answers after a rampage that wounded the Democratic congresswoman and killed six people. Friends and authorities said 22-year-old suspect Jared Loughner had radical and bizarre political views, but his motivation is still not clear.
Dupnik believes that the cacophony of talk radio, 24/7 cable news and Internet message boards created an atmosphere that allows violent acts by unstable people to take root.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," Dupnik said at a news conference broadcast live nationwide about eight hours after Saturday's shooting.
"And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry," said the sheriff, a Democrat who considers himself a close friend of Giffords. Also killed in the shooting was federal Judge John Roll, also a close friend.
The son of a copper miner, Dupnik grew up with his five brothers in the former mining community of Bisbee in southeastern Arizona when "life was simpler."
There was no telephone or television in his house until he was in high school.
Dupnik delivered newspapers as a teen and worked three summers in Bisbee's mines while in college. He joined the Tucson police department in 1958 after realizing he couldn't fulfill his dream of becoming a professional baseball player and because he needed to make some money.
He's been a lawman since then, with 30 years as Pima County sheriff.
"People say they found him when they settled the city and he's been here ever since," said Trent Humphries, co-founder of the Tucson Tea Party. "He's been sheriff a very, very long time."
Humphries said he doesn't think the sheriff is a bad guy but that he should not have spoken so openly about a potential motive in the shooting. He said the sheriff's comments led to dozens of e-mails to Humphries telling him that he and his family should have been the ones killed and that Humphries has blood on his hands.
"I think that he was in grief and pain, and had he thought through what he was doing and saying, he would have realized the consequences it would have on other people," Humphries said. "It's ironic and unfortunate him saying things like that caused even more hateful speech and division."
Tony Estrada, sheriff of neighboring Santa Cruz County on the Mexico border and a friend of Dupnik, said he didn't see the sheriff's comments as political.
"This is something that happened on his watch," Estrada said. "It's obvious that he was upset by the whole tragedy and expressing his feelings as a human being, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think that's a normal reaction to seeing people senselessly murdered."
He said the sheriff has always been opinionated, and that comes from five decades in law enforcement.
"He has always gone out and taken a strong position when he feels there's an injustice and when laws are not appropriate," Estrada said. "He has strong convictions and won't hesitate to bring them forward. He gets criticized, but as long as he feels that he's doing the right thing, he has no problem."
Dupnik has lambasted Arizona's gun culture in the shooting's aftermath, calling out Republican lawmakers who have worked hard to relax gun laws in recent years. Concealed weapons are now allowed in bars for licensed carriers, and lawmakers are proposing that students and teachers be allowed to have weapons in schools.
"I think we're the Tombstone of the United States of America," Dupnik said. "I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that's almost where we are."
He also has opposed the state's controversial new law cracking down on illegal immigrants, criticizing it as "born out of bigotry." His views have made him sort of an "anti-Sheriff Joe Arapaio," his hard-line counterpart in Phoenix.
"It put a target on the backs of 2 million people in Arizona who were here legally and have been here for generations, many of them," he said.
He also talked about how he was a beat cop back in the 1960s and how they put mentally ill people into a system that incarcerated them. "Today they're out on the street and we're paying the price for it," he said.
Dupnik, who has been married to his second wife for 31 years and has six daughters, doesn't plan on changing, and suspects his opinions soon will be yesterday's news.
"I don't think anybody ever heard of Sheriff Dupnik until Saturday," he said. "In a few days I'm sure people will forget who Dupnik was."
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