Utah AG suspends contract with surveillance firm founded by former Klan member

The Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City (Getty Images)

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The office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Tuesday announced it would suspend a contract with a surveillance technology company following a report that the firm’s founder was once a member of a white-nationalist gang that committed acts of anti-Semitic and racist violence.

Damien Patton, whose company, Banjo, was building a surveillance network for Reyes’ office, spent part his youth in the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, OneZero magazine reported Tuesday. Patton participated in the 1990 drive-by shooting of a synagogue in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, and also attended meetings where speakers called for the extermination of black and Jewish people from the United States.

Patton was 17 at the time of the synagogue shooting and later pleaded guilty to juvenile delinquency. While Patton’s biography was known to be colorful — including stints as a NASCAR mechanic, U.S. Navy member and crime-scene investigator — before landing in the world of coding and artificial intelligence, his time as a white nationalist was only uncovered recently after OneZero obtained grand jury testimony he gave before the 1992 trial of another Klan member.

Banjo, which Patton founded in 2010, won a $20.8 million, five-year contract in 2019 to build a “live-time” surveillance network for Utah law enforcement. Details of the contract have been secretive, but according to a March 8 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, Banjo’s technology sifts through 911 and police-dispatch calls, traffic cameras operated by the Utah Department of Transportation and social media posts.

The contract has prompted bipartisan civil-liberties concerns from Utah lawmakers, though Reyes’ office has previously said the attorney general wants to pursue “high-tech crime fighting tools.” But discovery of Patton’s past has put Banjo’s work on hold.

In a statement, Reyes’ office said it was “shocked and dismayed at reports that Banjo’s founder had any affiliation with any hate group or groups in his youth.” The statement said neither Reyes nor his aides were aware of Patton’s past Klan associations or hate crimes.

“They are indefensible. He has said so himself,” the statement read.

In a statement shared with OneZero and posted on Banjo’s website, Patton said he was “extremely remorseful” for a “dark and despicable period in my life.”

“In my teens, I dropped out of school, lived on the streets, ate out of dumpsters and raised money panhandling,” Patton wrote. “I was desperate and afraid. I was taken in by skinhead gangs and white supremacist organizations. Over the course of a few years, I did many things as part of those groups that I am profoundly ashamed of and sorry about.”

Reyes’ office said it believes Patton’s statement of regret, but that it will review Banjo’s work for the Utah state government in light of the revelations.

“While we believe Mr. Patton’s remorse is sincere and believe people can change, we feel it’s best to suspend use of Banjo technology by the Utah Attorney General’s Office while we implement a third-party audit and advisory committee to address issues like data privacy and possible bias,” the office’s statement read. “We recommend other state agencies do the same.”

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artificial intelligence, Banjo, Surveillance, Utah
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