Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who for the last 32 years has maintained his position as the county’s top law enforcement official, stood his ground against comments made last week by the five Republican candidates looking to fill his seat this election year.
The GOP hopefuls, Chester Manning, Mark Napier, Vinson Holck, Terry Frederick, and Walt Setzer, criticized Dupnik on a variety of issues, most notably relating to remarks made following the Jan. 8, 2011 mass shooting at a public event where former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head.
In a press conference hours after the incident, Dupnik blamed the shooting on the “vitriol” political rhetoric in today’s society, and faulted state gun laws.
The issue has proven a sticking point for Dupnik’s opponents, who argue that political matters and law enforcement should be kept separate.
In a response that might have surprised his opponents, Dupnik said he agrees with keeping politics and law enforcement separate, and claimed he only voiced his opinion on the matter because it was one that related to public safety.
“When people in the legislature and leaders in the right wing suggest we should have gun laws, which for example, would allow guns in classrooms and on campuses, I think law enforcement people ought to speak out against that, and I have, and I do,” he said. “I think I have a responsibility to do that. I expressed an opinion that millions of people across the country communicated to the department that they were glad to see somebody do.”
The GOP candidates also targeted Dupnik’s comments on Senate Bill 1070, a bill he said he would not enforce, and referred to as “racist,” “disgusting,” and “unnecessary” in a videotaped press conference.
“Once again, it’s a public safety issue,” said Dupnik. “It relates to how we enforce the law, and it coerces law enforcement to profile. It says that any citizen who believes we are not enforcing the bill can sue us, but also says that people on whom we enforce the law can sue us. I’ve never seen this in any other jurisdiction.”
Though Dupnik argued his comments weren’t politically driven, he said he wants to remind the public that the sheriff, an elected official, is also a political figure.
“The candidates running are also political, or they wouldn’t be running as Republican figures,” said Dupnik.
Dupnik admitted he refused to enforce the state law, but argued he still enforced federal law.
Despite his stance on SB1070, Dupnik said he has been a leader on border security, having been involved in creating organizations like Operation Alliance, HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Administration), and the first border crimes unit in existence in Arizona.
“We detain more illegals than in any other state,” said Dupnik. “These people (the Republican candidates) have no idea what we do, but they want to run the department.”
Dupnik disputed common claims by the GOP that the department is lacking leadership, and morale is diminishing with low-ranking officers.
“It’s just the opposite,” he said. “In my judgment, our morale is higher than any law enforcement agency around here, and I have a lot of endorsements from my own cops and other police organizations around the state.”
Dupnik said under his leadership and with public support, he initiated a unified communication system for all of Pima County public safety, created the Counter Narcotics Alliance, Regional SWAT team, and made improvements to the Pima County Jail facilities.
Dupnik countered the accusation by implying the Republican candidates are unsuitable for the position.
“You know what scares me?” he said. “Some person with virtually no law enforcement background, especially when it comes to administration and leadership, could come in and destroy an organization like this overnight. The sheriff has a tremendous amount of authority and power, and I try regularly not only to respect that myself, but to instill that into the people who work here.”
Dupnik called a claim ranking Pima County’s crime rate as significantly higher than Maricopa County “an absolute fabrication.”
“They throw this nonsense out there and hope it will stick,” he said. “We have, in the area of violence, the second lowest crime rate in the state, including all law enforcement agencies. The only law enforcement agency above us in this area is Scottsdale. Our crime rate is less than half of what it is in the City of Tucson.”
Dupnik was recently one of 13 state sheriffs to send a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer asking her to halt the legalization of medical marijuana.
“Medical legalization is nothing but a hoax, perpetrated on the people of Arizona,” he said. “Marijuana has nothing to do with health, and if it really did, and the medical community was begging for it, I would be the first to jump in line and say ‘lets do it’.”
When asked his running platform this election, Dupnik said not much would change from years past.
“We will try to stay afloat, given the economic crisis that we face,” he said. “We’ve had to downsize the organization the last four or five years because of the economy. But as always, our primary focus has always been on providing fast service to people who need it.”
In general, Dupnik said he would like to see more attention on the state and nation’s “vulnerable” mental health system.
“You have the issue of public safety versus the right of the individual, and therein lies the problem,” he said. “I’d like to see a system set up where professionals are referred to individuals (like Loughner) when the red flags are there.”
Dupnik said there is no way to be sure whether or not the past controversial comments he made will affect his chances this election season, but he is hopeful the public chooses to reelect him.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to be the sheriff for this many years,” he said. “I love the position. Law enforcement is my life. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department is my family, and I hope like hell the people will give me another chance.”
Dupnik will face the winner of the primary election and Green Party candidate Dave Croteau in the Nov. 6 General Election.