01.09.11

Arizona's New Star Sheriff

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is overshadowed by Phoenix's infamous Joe Arpaio. But Tucson's top lawman is winning liberal raves for his handling of Arizona's shooting spree.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, leading the investigation into the tragic Tucson shooting spree that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Gifford and 13 others and claimed six lives, is not your typical Arizona lawman.

Dupnik, a Texas native who joined the Tucson Police Department in 1958, became an overnight Internet sensation after taking over the probe into Saturday’s bloodbath. Prominent liberal blogs hailed him as a paragon of virtue, and urged readers to email their thanks for announcing that hate speech can have dangerous consequences. Fans set up a new Facebook page, dubbed “ Clarence Dupnik is my Hero,” after he denounced his home state as a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry” and blamed political “vitriol” for the actions of the gunman who left Rep. Giffords on the operating table, shot through the brain and fighting for survival, still in critical condition more than 24 hours after the incident. He’s even scheduling press interviews as early as 4 a.m.

On Sunday, Dupnik, looking tired and angry, really played against type, blasting Arizona’s lax gun laws—including a new measure aimed at allowing anyone over 21 to carry guns on college campuses—and confessing, in a rare personal moment, “extreme sadness, sorrow, and shock” over the shooting of the congresswoman, a friend and political ally.

That sort of behavior stands out in a state more accustomed to the hard-nose, hard-line antics of Dupnik’s neighbor to the north, Joe Arpaio—who likes to call himself “the toughest sheriff in America,” parade inmates around in their underwear, and proudly heads what he calls an “ illegal immigration posse” to lock up migrants suspected of being in violation of Arizona’s harsh new immigration law.

But then, Dupnik is no Arpaio. A no-nonsense centrist Democrat who favors community policing and drug-prevention programs, he’s served for 30 years as the chief lawman in Pima County, dominated by Tucson, a sleepy artistic city and the home of the University of Arizona. Tucson has always honored its centuries-old Hispanic heritage, while Phoenix, the state’s center of commerce and government, fights a rap among Hispanics as a racist town.

Arpaio gleefully supported passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law that makes it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants to set foot in Arizona. Dupnik vowed not to enforce the “stupid law” which he figured would foster racial profiling. (Thus far, he’s been able to honor his pledge; the harshest parts of the law have been temporarily stayed by a federal judge.)

Arpaio has enforced other controversial immigration laws imposed by Arizona’s legislature, randomly rounding up hundreds of unauthorized immigrants in their workplaces and neighborhoods. Dupnik has instead targeted criminal immigrants.

And Arpaio is very at home with a high-octane political rhetoric—the sort of talk that Dupnik thinks has fueled an anti-immigrant climate in the state.

That rhetoric, Dupnik has said several times, may have set off the alleged killer in the Tucson shooting spree, a 22-year-old apparently mentally unstable Tucson man named Jared Lee Loughner, who on Sunday was charged with two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder in connection with Saturday’s shootings.

Arizona’s new star sheriff still hasn’t come up with a motive for the mayhem. But, as he said during his Sunday press conference, “you can call most murders a hate crime.”

Two days before Giffords was shot, Dupnik spoke with Newsweek reporter Eve Conant about the heightened tensions and misinformation surrounding immigration issues in Arizona. Although illegal immigration along the border has been a problem for decades, border apprehensions have declined 75 percent in the last decade, crime hasn’t risen in border communities, and the border is “as secure as it’s ever been,” he said

But the 2010 election set off national alarm bells about the safety of American citizens in the borderlands in part, Dupnik said, because "Senator McCain and Senator Kyl were screaming and yelling at Obama, talking about 'that dang fence' and so on. Now they're back in Congress and we haven't heard a word," he said.

"Border issues are very complicated,” Dupnik said, “but the American public tends to derive very simple solutions to complicated problems."

Arpaio’s most recent solution to border complexities is indeed a simple, if unworkable one; in December, he suggested erecting tents along the border to warehouse those wily bordercrossers.

Arpaio, a Tea Party favorite, has clashed for years with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is now investigating him for alleged civil-rights violations and alleged abuses of power. (Arpaio has denied wrongdoing.)

While Arpaio wars with the feds, Dupnik works with them. The Tucson shootings investigation that Dupnik oversees involves several cooperating federal, state, and local agencies. That includes the FBI, whose director, William Mueller III, was dispatched to Tucson by President Barack Obama after the tragedy. Dupnik stood to the side while Mueller fielded press questions.

Hours later, the feds charged Loughner with two counts of murder (of federal employees Judge John Roll and Gifford aide Gabe Zimmerman) and three counts of attempted murder (of Giffords, and aides Ron Barber and Pamela Simon).

Loughner, a loner who had made death threats before, has not been arraigned and has yet to respond to the federal charges.

If additional charges are filed involving the four deaths and 12 injuries of non-federal employees, it’s likely they will be handled by the Pima County Attorney’s Office.

A second man that Dupnik originally thought might be involved in the crime turned out to be a cab driver who’d dropped Loughner off at the shootings site. Dupnik, Arizona’s new star sheriff, still hasn’t come up with a motive for the mayhem. But, as he said during his Sunday press conference, “you can call most murders a hate crime.”

For his part, Arpaio has yet to issue a statement regarding the shootings. His media relations office, usually buzzing with press releases, has been unusually quiet; not a single press communiqué for 2011 is posted on Arpaio’s website.

Eve Conant and Claire Martin contributed to this report.

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Visit her on Facebook, or her website.