Matthew Hunt, longtime LAPD leader, dies at 91
Matthew Hunt, a longtime leader in the Los Angeles Police Department known for his disarming Irish accent and willingness to confront problems within the department, including publicly calling out his boss in the days after the unrest that followed the acquittals of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, died on Saturday. He was 91.
He died at his daughter’s residence in Rancho Palos Verdes of complications of cancer, according to his son, Tom Hunt.
“He was ahead of his time,” former City Councilmember and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks said, praising Hunt for his dedication to creating a more diverse and transparent department. “He was really a stickler and spoke up and wasn’t shy about fairness. Holding people accountable, but fairly.”
During his 31 years with the department — a trajectory that began with graduating valedictorian at the academy and led to him ultimately being considered as a finalist for the department’s top job — Hunt rose to the rank of deputy chief. He spent many years with the department working in South L.A., where he extolled the importance of building relationships with residents.
“He was into the idea of community policing before it was fashionable,” said David O’Connell, who met Hunt in the late 1980s, when he was pastor at St. Frances X. Cabrini, a parish in South L.A.
O’Connell, now the regional auxiliary bishop of the San Gabriel Valley, added, “It wasn’t the culture of the LAPD at the time, I would say, but he knew it was the only way forward.”
Born Matthew Vincent Hunt in 1931, he grew up one of 10 siblings raised in a two-bedroom apartment in Ireland’s County Cork, where his father worked as a policeman. To help make ends meet, Hunt spent his summers picking root vegetables and, at 14, he moved away from home for an apprenticeship at a department store.
His missed his family and often cried himself to sleep at night, but eventually found refuge in books. For the rest of his life, he had an uncanny ability to recite passages of literature from memory, sometimes rattling off stanzas of Shakespeare on command.
During his time at the apprenticeship, he met Kathleen O’Donnell, whom he would marry several years later. After aging out of the work-study program, he spent some time in London and then New York, where Kathleen was working as a nanny. He got a job as a salesman for a bread company.
In hopes of speeding up the citizenship process, he joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, where he got his first up-close experience with American racism. One night, when he and a few buddies went out for a drink, the bartender refused to serve the Black soldier in their group, Hunt later told his son. Appalled, the friends grabbed a six-pack and left, downing the beers on the roof of their barracks instead. He never forgot the sound of his friend, the Black serviceman, crying as they drove back to the base.
He was later stationed at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro for long enough to fall in love with Southern California. In the early 1960s, not long after getting married and becoming a citizen, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department. At the academy, he broke his leg while running and a sergeant began taunting him, using a derogatory term for Irish people while yelling at him and implying that he’d faked the injury to get out of training exercises.
Later in his career, Hunt helped oversee efforts to diversify the department, focusing on recruiting more women into the ranks, as well as more Black, Latino and Asian officers. In the early 1980s, when Jim McDonnell, who years later became L.A. County’s sheriff, was a rookie on the police force, he looked up to Hunt as the type of leader he hoped to be someday: firm yet fair, confident yet humble.
“Someone who would do the right thing even when it wasn’t popular,” McDonnell said in an interview.
The Times wrote a profile of Hunt in 1992, characterizing him as a respected, but demanding leader who had earned support from many in South L.A., but had some detractors within the department who felt he was too hard on his officers.
The article detailed an incident from several months earlier, in which an officer who had arrived to work with a Confederate flag and a noose displayed on his pickup truck had initially avoided an official reprimand. But Hunt later stepped in, suspending the officer for five days.
He got a lot of flak from the police union at the time, his son recalled, as well as a phone call from then-Chief Daryl Gates, questioning whether the punishment had been too severe.
On the afternoon of April 29, 1992 — about a month after the profile of Hunt was published — four Los Angeles policemen on trial for King’s beating were acquitted. The verdict shocked the Southland and crowds packed onto several city streets, but the flashpoint was at a single intersection in South L.A., which fell under Hunt’s supervision.
“I was going out of my mind,” he said in an interview days later. “We were just not prepared to deal with something with this magnitude in a very, very short time.”
In that interview, he revealed that he had previously pressed Gates to dedicate more attention to preparing ahead of the verdicts. But Gates had rebuffed him, he said, ultimately leaving the department ill-prepared. (An assistant chief at the time backed up Hunt’s account, saying in an interview, “It got to the point where it was somewhat embarrassing because Hunt kept hammering and the chief kept dismissing.”)
Hunt, who was among several finalists in the running to succeed Gates, wasn’t ultimately selected for the top job and retired not long after in 1993. But for as long as he was on the job, he approached it with a certain cheeriness — “a happy warrior,” as Tom came to think of his father.
He’d often hear his dad’s alarm go off around 3 a.m., knowing he was leaving their West Covina home and heading to work, often not returning until around 6:30 p.m. Tom said he once asked his father if he minded the long hours.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he responded. “I love my job.”
When he was growing up, Tom said, there was never too much focus on fun, but instead on wisdom and hard work. He still vividly remembers the advice his father gave him as a teenager, when he got his first job flipping burgers at Tastee-Freez: “Think like an owner and you’ll do the right thing and make the right decisions.”
In recent years, Tom said, his father had channeled his characteristic man-on-a-mission energy into his new role as caregiver, helping care for his wife, Kathleen O’Donnell Hunt, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2019.
He is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Tom and Tammy Hunt; his daughter and son-in-law, Colleen and Michael Cotter; several siblings and his grandchildren, Katherine Hunt, Matthew Hunt, Claire Cotter and Tim Cotter.
For information about the memorial service, contact the family at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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