Uber Won't Change Background Checks After Michigan Killing Spree

By Michael Klazema on 2/29/2016

Uber has come under fire for its background check policies repeatedly over the past few years, with numerous drivers for the ridesharing service accused of assault, rape, and other offenses. Now, though, the company is facing arguably its biggest controversy yet. On Saturday, January 20th, a 45-year-old Kalamazoo, Michigan man drove around the city on a killing spree. The suspect, who was later arrested without incident, shot eight people at three different locations, leaving six of his victims dead. He was also an Uber driver, who allegedly continued to accept fares through the mobile-based ridesharing service while he was driving around the city looking for victims.

The suspect has only been driving for Uber since January, at which point he passed the company's usual background check with no red flags. In the wake of the Kalamazoo shooting, critics of Uber—both in the college town and throughout the country—have criticized Uber's vetting processes. If Uber had done more to screen its drivers, would this man have been allowed to accept fares through the service? Specifically, critics of Uber want the company to start running fingerprint-based background checks of all drivers. The argument for fingerprint-based checks predates the Kalamazoo incident significantly.

In the past, Uber has argued that running fingerprint background checks would not help to uncover psychological issues or more accurate criminal histories. In fact, the company has previously argued that fingerprint checks often include "false positives," because they can turn up arrest reports even for individuals who were never formally convicted of a crime. Arrests offer no proof of guilt and can therefore not legally be considered as part of a pre-employment background check. Uber says that, because of false positives, a fingerprint background check system would be too discriminatory and too unreliable to deliver fair subjective findings.

The company isn't changing its tune in light of the Kalamazoo killing spree, either. And frankly, Uber's chief security officer was right when he said that a more thorough criminal history check—fingerprint-based or otherwise—would not have flagged this particular driver. The suspect had no criminal history. His neighbors said he was a completely normal and friendly family man. Even according to his prior fares, the man was a pleasant, amenable driver. Of the 100 or so fares the suspect had accepted since joining Uber in January, he had a rating on the service of 4.73 out of 5.

In other words, Uber is probably right that this particular incident didn't provide much of an argument for fingerprint background check. However, not all cases are like this one, where the perpetrator of an offense had no prior criminal history. If there is a way that Uber can learn more about their drivers' pasts, the company frankly owes it to their passengers to explore such an avenue.

Furthermore, some critics of Uber are reaching beyond criminal history checks and want the company to screen its drivers for mental illness or any trace of psychological or emotional instability. For a company as big as Uber, such close and in-depth psychological checkups are likely both logistically and financially impractical. As of December 2014, the company had more than 160,000 active drivers in the United States and has undoubtedly grown since. Ordering in-depth exams on the emotional wellness of each of those people would either force Uber to go out of business or drastically reduce the number of drivers willing to jump through the hoops necessary to work as part of the service.

Bottom line, Uber probably won't be making any changes to their background check policies in the wake of the Kalamazoo shooting, and it's unlikely that better background checks could have prevented the tragedy in the first place. None of that will stop Uber's critics from calling for background check policy changes, however.


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