DETROIT — Uber will start doing annual criminal background checks on U.S. drivers and hire a company that constantly monitors criminal arrests as it tries to do a better job of keeping riders safe.
The move announced Thursday is one of several actions taken by the ride-hailing company under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who said that the changes aren’t just being done to polish the company’s image, which has been tarnished by driver misbehavior and a long string of other embarrassing failings.
Other safety features include buttons in the Uber app that allow riders to call 911 in an emergency, as well as app refinements that make it easier for riders to share their whereabouts with friends or loved ones.
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Since it began operating in 2009, Uber has been dogged by reports of drivers accosting passengers, including lawsuits alleging sexual assaults.
“I can’t change the past, but I can change the things that we do going forward,” Khosrowshahi said.
Some governments now require background checks after drivers are hired, but the company’s policy makes it uniform nationwide, Uber said.
Uber will conduct its annual background checks through a company called Checkr starting in the next few weeks. It still does not intend to do FBI fingerprint background checks, saying its check of court records and other databases is robust, fair and “stacks up well against the alternatives.”
In Chicago, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, could not be reached for comment on Uber’s security changes.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) called it self-preservation for the ride-hailing giant.
“They’re going to have to find a way to assure people that their employees are not dangerous criminals disguised as transportation drivers. If they can’t do that, usage is going to suffer,” “Hopkins said.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said he has long believed that Uber, Lyft and Via drivers should be subjected to the same fingerprinting and criminal background checks as their counterparts in the steadily shrinking taxicab industry.
“If taxicab drivers have to do it, then all drivers need to do it. We need to level the playing field,” Cappleman said.
“At the same time, I like Uber drivers because they go in parts of the city where taxicab drivers don’t. And this city has an inordinate amount of institutional racism. African-Americans are having a hard time getting taxis. These Uber drivers are filling the void.”
In late November, the state of Colorado accused Uber of placing passengers in “extreme jeopardy”-and slapped the ride-hailing giant with a nearly $9 million fine-for allowing 57 people with past criminal or motor vehicle offenses to drive for the ride-hailing.
A few days later, the Chicago City Council agreed to let Uber, Lyft and Via escape fingerprinting and let the ride-hailing and taxicab industries off the hook on background checks.
Instead, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose brother is an Uber investor, left it up to the businesses to run the names of drivers through national and global databases to make sure they don’t have criminal records, show up on sex offender registries or appear on a list of suspected terrorists.
How many eye-openers do we have to have before we understand that public safety is exposed?” Beale, the taxicab industry’s staunchest City Council supporter, said on that day.
“Fingerprinting is the only way the Police Department says you can make sure a person is who they say they are. Until we do that, people are constantly gonna be exposed.”
David Kriesman, a spokesman for Cabdrivers United, a union affiliated with AFSCME Council 31, agreed that “fingerprint background checks” are the “most accurate method to ensure someone is who they say they are.”
“We’re opposed to any effort that would lower the standards for cab drivers and call it “leveling the playing field,’ ” Kriesman said.
A company, which Uber would not identify, has been hired to continually check arrest data, and that also will begin in a few weeks, Uber said.
Contributing: Fran Spielman