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Uber Defends Background Check Policy After Kalamazoo Shooting

4 min read
This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Jason Dalton, the man charged for the shooting of six people on Saturday in Kalamazoo, Mich., has admitted to the crimes, according to media reports on Monday afternoon.

But attention from the media and public is still on Uber given Dalton’s employment as a driver for the ride-hailing giant, including on the evening of the shootings. The company, which has been plagued by criticism over its background check practices for years, argues that there was nothing more it could have done to keep Dalton from working as a driver for its service as he didn’t have a criminal record.

“As this case shows, past behavior doesn’t always predict how people will behave,” said Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, during a conference call with reporters on Monday. He was joined by Uber Safety Advisory Board members Ed Davis and Margaret Richardson, and senior vice president of communications Rachel Whetstone.

Sullivan added that prior to Saturday, Dalton had maintained a rating of 4.73 out of 5 from passengers and overall positive feedback, making him even more unlikely to come under Uber’s suspicion. He had completed more than 100 rides prior to the events on Saturday, the company said.

Uber has been strongly criticized for not following in the footsteps of the taxi industry and using fingerprinting as part of its background check procedures. However, the company continues to insist that its own procedures are just as safe, if not safer than if it were to use fingerprinting, because it involves checking local court documents instead of relying on federal databases, which Uber says are sometimes incomplete.

Uber executives also addressed questions over about the “panic button” recently introduced in India to help passengers report incidents by saying that the feature was devised for a market where alerting authorities isn’t as sophisticated of a system as in other places.

“In the United States, 911 is the panic button that we use and that’s the panic button law enforcement wants people to use,” Sullivan said, adding that “it would be a stretch to try to do better than the 911 system.”

But there’s still a bit of a gray area in Uber’s procedures. As executives explained, while the company immediately -- ”within minutes” -- suspends drivers when passengers report violent incidents, it takes a different approach when passenger feedback is about the driver’s driving performance.

Instead, Uber chooses to get in touch with the driver and get “both sides of the story” because it considers feedback to be subjective. Over the weekend, reports surfaced that at least one of Dalton’s passengers that evening reported him to the police, and later Uber, after Dalton suddenly began to drive erratically. The passenger was reported to have said he had to jump out of the car because the driver wouldn’t slow down.

Uber declined to share details about the timeline of events that evening as well as complaints to authorities and Uber about Dalton, but a spokesperson did confirm to The Guardian that the passenger’s complaint came in about four hours before the first victim was killed. Because it wasn’t explicitly about violence, the complaint wasn’t prioritized by Uber’s customer response team, the spokesperson said, adding that three million Uber rides are completed daily.

During the call, Sullivan made clear that the company doesn’t intend to change its background checks or other safety procedures following the Saturday’s shooting.

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