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Have gun, Will talk: Arizona Sheriff Clarence Dupnik not speechless over Tucson shootings or much else

January 11, 2011 |  2:34 am

Arizona Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik 1-9-11

For a chief law enforcement officer who's supposed to be assembling the complex criminal investigations of six sudden homicides against a local 22-year-old suspect, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik sure has found ample time the last couple of days to appear all over national news media, spouting prickly opinions on pretty much anything asked.

The sheriff, who celebrates his 75th birthday today, is understandably defensive. He had no officers at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Saturday open-air get-together in a shopping parking lot. Just the sight of a parked patrol car near a federal officeholder might have discouraged a troublemaker.

Indeed, Dupnik's deputies didn't arrive at the carnage scene until summoned by frantic 911 callers. By then, officers didn't even have to capture the suspected....

...shooter, Jared Loughner. Several brave, unarmed crowd members had already subdued the man; good thing they did because the kid still had ammo for his 9-millimeter Glock semiautomatic.

Dupnik followed the usual public relations communications template for such crises: a news briefing late the first day, as national media types and a parade of satellite trucks stream into town, to efficiently distribute to everyone at once what little information can be released by then.Arizona Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Authorities are usually quite circumspect at these initial briefings, for fear of poisoning any future jury pool ("We have the shooter!") or tipping off possible accomplices still at large.

Dupnik didn't release the name of the young man already in custody or speculate on a motive. The sheriff did, however, hand the upcoming legal defense some support by volunteering that the suspect was clearly unbalanced.

He also announced that Giffords, a personal friend, was the main target, although 19 other people were hit, six fatally.

And then, based on no evidence whatsoever, the veteran of 31 years as sheriff expounded on how the shootings were connected to the heightened temperature of today's political rhetoric. In his own prose certain to make Arizona tourism authorities wince, Dupnik said:

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. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

If, indeed, Sheriff Dupnik is quite certain the climate is so dangerous and Arizona so full of boiling political rhetoric, anger and abundant armed nutjobs stoked by irresponsible media that made his friend Giffords a likely target, why were there no deputies present Saturday or just stopping by the Safeway rally to be seen? The way donut shops and all-night convenience stores are so delighted to have uniformed officers visibly patronizing their place of business routinely.

This isn't the first time Dupnik willingly walked into politicial controversies, portraying himself as a simple law enforcement professional with no political interests. Last year he called Arizona's controversial new immigration law, which his department would be expected to enforce, "unwise," "stupid" and "racist."

At one church forum he commented, "We didn’t have a tea party until we had a black president.” Asked to elaborate, the sheriff added: "I was talking about how bigotry is alive and well in America.”

With little mystery and no manhunt to preoccupy the hungry media battalions, willing officials were in big demand to fill airtime.

And Dupnik was definitely willing. On Monday, the day of Loughner's first legal appearance, the sheriff had interviews with CBS News and Fox News. On ABC News, Dupnik attacked Rush Limbaugh, not previously thought to be involved in the case. On CNN he said "the hard right is deliberately fueling the fire." The sheriff also took a phone call from President Obama and no doubt will see him at Wednesday's memorial service at the University of Arizona.

"I'm especially disappointed in the sheriff," said Arizona's Rep. Trent Franks, "because we were looking to him for straight facts and he politicized this."

The unspoken truth is Dupnik's incorrigible media showboating may be just fine with federal investigators, who typically move into such high-profile incidents and quietly take over the investigations by Day Two. If the old guy's busy out front blabbing on TV, he's not in the feds' hair, as close-cropped as it usually is.

Related Items:

Tucson shootings: History reveals mental illness, not rhetoric, behind more assassinations

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik calls some Arizona gun laws height of insanity

Gov. Jan Brewer says 'Arizona is in pain, our grief is profound'

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Eric Thayer / Reuters

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