Banjo CEO Damien Patton under scrutiny after report details past involvement with KKK

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Damien Patton, CEO of Park City-based tech firm Banjo, poses for a photo on the main floor of his company’s office in Kimball Junction.
James Hoyt/Park Record

The CEO of the Park City-based artificial intelligence firm Banjo is facing scrutiny following a news report that revealed he used to be a member of a white supremacist group and was once involved in the shooting of a synagogue.

The report, published Tuesday by tech news outlet OneZero, shows Damien Patton was part of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee and, as a 17-year-old, was behind the wheel during a drive-by shooting in which a Klan leader fired a handgun into a synagogue near Nashville.

Patton pleaded guilty to acts of juvenile delinquency for the 1990 incident, according to the report, which was based on courtroom testimony, court records and sworn statements. No people were hit or killed during the shooting.

Banjo, headquartered in Kimball Junction, uses artificial intelligence to collect reams of data it then provides to law enforcement agencies and emergency responders. The company claims its technology helps authorities react quicker and more efficiently to emergencies.

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In a written statement posted on the company’s website, Patton apologized for his actions, saying he no longer holds racist views and has sought to make amends for his past. He added that he was abused as a child, leading him to leave home at an early age and live on the streets, where he said he was taken in by “skinhead gangs and white supremacist organizations.”

“I am deeply ashamed of this time in my life and feel sincere remorse and deep regret for my affiliation with hateful groups whose actions and beliefs are completely despicable, immoral and indefensible,” he said in the statement.

​“I am sorry to all those who I have hurt and offended and understand that no apology will undo what I have done. For the last 30 years, I have worked to right this grievous mistake as a lost, misguided adolescent kid.”

The revelations were publicized as Banjo has come under increased scrutiny following a March news article from VICE that shed light on the company’s lucrative business contracts with the state and involvement with various other law enforcement agencies in Utah.

Critics have raised concerns about the privacy implications of Banjo and the agencies it works with having access to the massive amounts of data the company collects, ranging from social media posts to surveillance camera footage. The company, which touts a mission to “reduce human suffering,” contends it does not gather personal identifying information, that it does not track individuals and that it has implemented sufficient measures to protect privacy.

Both the Park City Police Department and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office are among the agencies that utilize Banjo’s technology. Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, for instance, said during a 2019 panel discussion that the department was working with the firm on an initiative to model evacuation plans based on GPS data in the event of a wildfire.

The Park Record has submitted public records requests to both agencies seeking further information about their involvement with Banjo. Neither Carpenter nor Sheriff Justin Martinez were available for comment Wednesday.

After Patton’s involvement with white supremacist groups was publicized Tuesday, the Utah Attorney General’s Office said it would suspend its use of Banjo’s technology and implement an outside review to explore issues like data privacy and the possibility of bias in the technology.

“The Utah Attorney General’s Office is shocked and dismayed at reports that Banjo’s founder had any affiliation with any hate group or groups in his youth,” a statement from the Attorney General’s Office said. “Neither the Attorney General nor anyone in the Attorney General’s Office were aware of these affiliations or actions. They are indefensible. He has said so himself.

“Attorney General Sean D. Reyes and the Attorney General’s Office absolutely condemn the hate and violence promoted by supremacist groups and will continue to aggressively fight crimes and decry domestic terror perpetrated by them.”

Banjo on Wednesday announced that, in light of the Utah Attorney General’s Office’s action, the company is suspending all of its Utah contracts until a third-party audit of its operations has been completed.

“The audit will have direct oversight by the state and will look to ensure there’s no bias in the technology, that Banjo is not a surveillance company and that all data for the state is being handled per the contract,” the company said in a statement posted to its website.

​”Banjo’s mission is to save lives and minimize human suffering to help first responders in emergency situations while not invading people’s civil liberties and rights. We are looking forward to the audit to show that we can build technology to help save lives and protect people’s rights.”

It was unclear on Wednesday whether the Park City Police Department and Summit County Sheriff’s Office planned to reevaluate their dealings with Banjo in response to the revelations regarding Patton.

Patton founded Banjo in 2010 in California and moved the company to the Park City area in 2018.

Patton has said Banjo has raised more than $200 million in private funding. The company has become a notable part of Utah’s burgeoning tech industry, often referred to as Silicon Slopes. Patton, for instance, was a speaker at the 2019 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit that touted a lineup of participants that included figures such as the CEO of Pinterest and former Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez.

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