Michigan shooting puts focus on fingerprinting for Uber drivers

The spree shootings that left six people dead in Kalamazoo, Michigan, allegedly by an Uber driver who police say admitted to the random murders before and after he picked up passengers, has once again shined a spotlight on the ride-hailing industry and its resistance to heightened background checks, including fingerprints.

By all accounts, the so-called Level 2 background checks, which include a search of national fingerprint databases, would not have prevented shooting suspect Jason Dalton from becoming a driver because, according to law enforcement officials, he had no prior criminal record. In addition, even though investigators found a large stash of weapons at his home, he had no recorded mental health issues that would block him from owning a gun, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco.

Despite the fact that an enhanced background check would not have caught Dalton in any net, it still raises the questions for public officials about the safety of strangers picking up strangers and the need to provide as many safeguards as possible to ensure riders the person behind the wheel is as clean as possible.

Uber and its peers such as Lyft, Sidecar, and others, have put massive pressure on state and local government around the country to block fingerprint mandates, often using threats and political pressure of their growing legion of customers to get officials to back down. In some areas, they’ve successfully muted the move to require fingerprinting while in other venues – the very profitable ones, such as New York and Houston, where pulling out would hurt financially – they’ve acquiesced to the mandate.

Massachusetts lawmakers are trying to fashion a bill to enact some regulations on the transportation network companies that would put some regulations in place where there are none, and one of the bills before the Joint Committee on Financial Services calls for fingerprinting ride-hailing drivers.

Uber and others have pressured legislators not to include fingerprinting, arguing it would require more out of their drivers than what’s required of taxi drivers. On the other side, the state’s police chiefs and prosecutors have urged the Legislature to adopt the fingerprinting measure as a key component to ensuring rider safety.

State law allows cities and towns to require fingerprinting of cab and livery drivers, but no community had undertaken the effort. In a fairly transparent move, however, Boston police have begun fingerprinting the city’s 6,000 cabbies even as the Legislature is nearing its final version of the bill. The message seems to be it’s good for everyone.

“We’re trying to somewhat level the playing field here,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told the Herald. “Our hackney drivers are held to a high standard here, and if there is a complaint we have them in… I think what happens with Uber is that there is never any face-to-face interaction. The company never sees the driver.”

Uber claims its “industry leading” background checks are more than sufficient to catch the bad guys and there’s no proof that fingerprinting would do anything more other than create a discriminatory system that hampers the ability of minorities to become drivers because of their disproportionate encounters with police, even without convictions.

But a suit in California by that state’s district attorneys says the claim that Uber’s background checks are complete is just a marketing tool and the checks are nowhere near as rigorous as those required of the taxi industry.

“In Los Angeles alone, registered sex offenders, a kidnapper, identity thieves, burglars and a convicted murderer had passed Uber’s ‘industry leading’ background check,” according to the district attorneys.

In addition, Uber had been levying a $1 “safe rides” fee on every passenger that it said was used to offset the costs of their background checks. But in a separate class action suit in California, the company agreed to change the name of the fee to just a booking fee and pay $28.5 million to settle the suit.

There seem to be almost regular reports of past and present Uber drivers being charged with crimes that endanger passengers, from assault to rape. Uber claims its technology actually helps passengers who are crime victims because it shows riders who their driver is and tracks that driver through GPS. But it didn’t seem to do much when a customer complained over the weekend that Dalton, the alleged Michigan shooter, was driving dangerously and erratically and the passenger was forced to flee the vehicle.

Uber is drawing a line in the sand and saying it has no intention of changing its process of checking drivers’ backgrounds in the wake of the shooting. At least in Massachusetts, lawmakers may do it for them in the near future.




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