Boston Police are fingerprinting taxi drivers, but Uber says it won’t budge

Uber advisor David Plouffe speaks to a gathering of drivers and supporters in Roxbury on Feb. 23, 2016.
Uber advisor David Plouffe speaks to a gathering of drivers and supporters in Roxbury on Feb. 23, 2016.

A day after Boston Police started fingerprinting the city’s 6,000 taxi drivers to check their criminal backgrounds, a top Uber official said the fast-growing taxi alternative remains strongly opposed to taking the same step.

At a gathering of Uber drivers and community groups in Roxbury on Tuesday morning, senior company advisor David Plouffe repeated the company’s contention that fingerprint-based criminal background checks are unnecessary.

Adding new hurdles would crimp the company’s ability to sign up new drivers, which would cut into their ability to earn extra money by turning their cars into part-time rides for hire, Plouffe said.

“We should be thinking about how to build on this, how to make it easier for more people to get behind the wheel and make money [rather] than make it harder,” Plouffe said. “Every day, we have hundreds of people here in this area showing interest in driving on this platform.”

The debate over driver screening follows a pair of high-profile assault convictions of Boston-area men who had driven for Uber.

One former driver, Alejandro Done, is serving a 10-to-12-year sentence for kidnapping and raping a woman in Cambridge last year. Done had previously driven for Uber, but the company has said he was not an active Uber driver when he picked up the victim in the case. Another active driver was supposed to pick her up.

On Friday, Uber driver Abderrahim Dakiri was convicted in Boston of assaulting a 21-year-old woman while she was a passenger in his vehicle last year. The victim in that case is one of two women suing Uber in federal court for what they say are improper safety screening practices.

Uber has asked for that civil suit to be dismissed because it “neither knew nor failed to discover anything” about Dakiri or the other driver in question.

Plouffe also said there wouldn’t be changes to Uber’s system following a weekend shooting in Michigan, where an Uber driver is suspected of killing six people. Plouffe noted the man had passed a criminal background check, and authorities have said he had no previous criminal record.

“Sadly, we have these incidents all too often in America, where we have deranged people committing horrific acts of gun violence,” Plouffe said.

Plouffe, a former campaign manager and senior advisor for President Obama, said that fingerprint-based background checks may be discriminatory because police records may not include whether someone arrested for a crime was convicted or exonerated.

Uber and its top competitor, Lyft, have fought efforts around the country to force their drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks before being allowed to drive passengers around town.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would mandate fingerprint checks for the companies’ drivers, who drive their own cars to pick up fares arranged over smartphone apps. Some cities, including New York and Houston, have required fingerprint checks for drivers on ride-hailing apps. Plouffe met Monday with state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, who is chairman of the House 
Financial Services Committee.

The push for stricter regulations and background checks on Uber and Lyft is supported nationally by the traditional taxi industry, which has seen its business steadily decline in the face of new competition from the mobile-app companies.

“Uber’s argument that fingerprinting is ‘discriminatory’ is self-serving. Any Massachusetts oversight agency would provide an appeals process for applicants who believed themselves unfairly barred,” said Dave Sutton, a spokesman for the industry’s “Who’s Driving You?” public policy campaign.

On Monday, Boston Police began running the city’s taxi drivers through a fingerprinting system to check for criminal  records. Police Commissioner William B. Evans, whose department is in charge of regulating the city’s taxis, said the change was not designed to put political pressure on Uber and Lyft.

“This is about public safety, and public safety alone,” Evans said Monday.

Uber maintains that its own system of using private companies to search for drivers’ criminal records allows the company to grow quickly — it plans to add millions of drivers to its system in the US this year — while also assuring safety.

It also says the ride-hailing app offers strong technological measures to ensure safety, including the ability to track rides as they happen, information on who is in the car, and a feature that lets riders share their real-time movements with friends and family.

At Tuesday’s gathering in Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall, Plouffe said more than 20,000 people work as Uber drivers in Boston, with more than 60 percent of them driving fewer than 10 hours per week. Mandating new screening requirements would just make it more difficult for people to make money and cut the supply of active drivers, he said.

“They’re doing this on the side. They’re not making a career commitment to do this,” Plouffe said. “What you don’t want to do is turn services like Uber and Lyft into old taxi companies. That’s the problem.”

Plouffe was joined Tuesday by former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, who praised the company’s efforts to sign up drivers in lower-income communities. McGinest, who was paid for his time at the event, said his work with youth sports and inner-city improvement initiatives has introduced him to many people who make a few extra dollars with Uber.

“They provide the flexibility to turn on that app, go to work, and make some money,” McGinest said. “Anything that’s helping our community get better and improve, I’m all for it.”

Updated 11:05 a.m. Tuesday with detail about Plouffe meeting with Massachusetts representative.