Syracuse, N.Y. – Former Syracuse Police Chief Leigh Hunt, who ran the city police department for four years after a 24-year career with the New York State Police, died Wednesday in Syracuse. He was 81.
Hunt came to Syracuse in 1986 from Albany, where he retired as a major after 24 years in the state police. Former Mayor Tom Young hired Hunt after conducting a national search for a new Syracuse police chief.
His colleagues remember Hunt as a chief who cared deeply about the officers who worked for him, said retired Lt. John Corbett. That was especially true when tragedy struck. Corbett said Hunt was devastated when undercover Officer Wallie Howard Jr. was murdered in October 1990.
“That really, really weighed heavily on him,’’ Corbett said. “He was in constant contact thereafter with Wallie’s mom. Even after he left the (police department), he was in constant contact.’’
Hunt was born in Brooklyn and joined the state police in 1962, said his friend, retired state police Maj. Tim McAuliffe, of Albany. Hunt rose through the ranks, working at several barracks and in the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, until he was promoted to major and put in charge of the state police academy in Albany.
McAuliffe said Hunt was known for being deft and empathetic, both with employees and crime victims.
“I would say he was probably the best person I’ve ever seen with people,’' McAuliffe said. “As a trooper and as a BCI man, you don’t always meet the cream of the crop. He worked good with everybody.’'
As the chief in Syracuse, Hunt won praise from some community groups, who lauded him for addressing the problems of inner-city neighborhoods. But Young replaced Hunt as city police chief in December 1990, citing policy differences.
In 1991, Hunt was chosen by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to be the state’s first director of Indian relations, a cabinet-level position. At the time, state officials faced volatile issues over Native American land claims, gambling compacts and the imposition of state sales taxes on Native American businesses.
In January 1994, Cuomo disbanded the Office of Indian Relations, and Hunt briefly took a job as assistant commissioner in the state prison system.
He ran unsuccessfully for Onondaga County sheriff in November 1994, losing to Kevin Walsh. Hunt’s campaign was marred by news that he accepted $50,000 in cash for his campaign from a Native American business owner, which he initially failed to disclose. Hunt subsequently reported the money as a campaign loan from the business owner.
Hunt has been largely out of the public eye for more than a quarter century, but he remained active in the community. He was a much-loved member of St. Lucy’s Catholic Church on the Near West Side, which is known for its food pantry and community outreach.
“He was just a real, real wonderful guy,’’ said the Rev. Jim Mathews. “Everybody loved Leigh. Very much involved. Just a real, real Christian gentleman. That’s what he was, a Christian gentleman.”
Calling hours will be 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at St. Lucy’s, 432 Gifford St. Funeral services will be 10 a.m. Tuesday at the church.