Canton votes to audit police department amid controversy over Karen Read case

Local News

There were frequent disruptions throughout the evening, both cheers and jeers. Several speakers described the animus felt throughout town as Read’s case heads to trial.

Karen Read appeared in Norfolk County Superior Court for a pre-trial hearing on May 3. John Tlumacki/Boston Globe Staff, File

Canton residents voted Monday to audit the local police department, their debate emblematic of the bitter division that has spread through town since the death of Boston Police Officer John O’Keefe and the murder charge against his girlfriend, Karen Read.

The special town meeting article passed by a vote of 903-800 during a session that lasted nearly four hours and drew a crowd so large that it spanned several rooms at Canton High School.

The approved motion calls on the town’s chief procurement officer or designee to “proceed with an administrative, policy, procedures and compliance review of the police department.” The article outlines a $200,000 maximum budget for the audit, which will be conducted by an independent consulting firm.

The vote comes amid the controversial case against Read, who’s accused of striking O’Keefe with her car while dropping him off at a home in Canton in January 2022. Read’s attorneys, however, insist that O’Keefe was actually beaten and that law enforcement officials have engaged in a coverup to frame Read for his death. 

“I know there’s a lot of people that are frustrated with how things have progressed in the town, and I know that people came here for a number of reasons,” Town Moderator Alan Hines said as he opened Monday’s meeting. “Some people are coming here tonight to protest or to rally against or because of the arrest of Karen Read. Some people are unhappy with the results of the last election, and some people are not happy about even having to attend a special town meeting.”

There were frequent disruptions throughout the evening including both cheers and jeers, which were met with the sound of a banging gavel.

Several speakers described the animus felt throughout town as Read’s case heads to trial.

“Our town is hurting and out of balance in ways I have never seen before,” said Tom Birmingham, one of the article’s proponents. “This certainly is a recipe for conflict, but it is also an opportunity for change.” 

He likened the petitioners to David, the biblical figure who took down the giant Goliath. 

“Let us be clear: the petitioners have no intention of taking down our government like David did to Goliath,” Birmingham said. “They simply want a meaningful, respectful opportunity to be heard.”

Some speakers questioned the need for an audit of the Canton Police Department, noting that there is already a system of checks and balances in place for police operations. Town Accountant Kathy Butters, for example, described existing audit mechanisms in Canton and argued that the proposal was redundant and “a waste of town funds.”

Still, Finance Committee Chair Cindy Thomas said the town’s Select Board has already indicated its intent to proceed with a review of the police department. The article, she noted, provides transparency about the cost and the process moving forward.

In recent months, Canton residents have packed into Select Board meetings to call for police transparency and voice their thoughts on the investigation into O’Keefe’s death. The case has also generated fervent speculation online among readers of the blog Turtleboy, which promotes the theory that Read was framed. Turtleboy blogger and Holden resident Aidan Kearney is currently facing witness intimidation charges tied to his extensive coverage of Read’s case.

“Over the past few months, I’ve been saddened by the fact that we as Canton residents have allowed outside influences with the intent of driving a wedge between us and our neighbors along with total disregard for the wellbeing of our town,” Canton Select Board Chair Thomas Theodore said in his remarks Monday. 

As the crowd erupted, he added: “The vitriol and hatred displayed on social media, the threatening letters and emails sent to different people, the defacing of property — this has to end. This is not Canton; we are better than this.”