Uber-Driving Shooter Prompts Security Questions About Ride Hailing Company

Uber has received criticism after Jason Dalton, an Uber driver, gunned down 6 in Kalamazoo, Mich., and injured 2 others after customers tried to contact the company complaining of Dalton's erratic and violent behavior.

by Marisa Kendall, San Jose Mercury News / February 23, 2016
Jason Brian Dalton, 45, of Cooper Township, Mich., in a video arraignment on multiple murder charges on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, at the Kalamazoo County Courthouse in Kalamazoo, Mich. Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press/TNS

(TNS)  -- As an Uber driver was charged Monday in a Michigan mass shooting that left six dead, the ride-hailing service went on the defensive and said its driver-vetting standards would not change.

Uber confirmed that the man named in the deaths, 45-year-old Jason Dalton, was driving for the company the day of the shootings. Several passengers contacted Uber to complain about his driving that violent Saturday, including one who called Dalton’s behavior dangerous and erratic, and reported it to 911, Uber chief security officer Joe Sullivan said during a Monday afternoon media call. But the San Francisco-based company said Dalton had passed Uber’s background check and had done nothing before then to cause alarm.

The media call, organized to deal with the bombardment of questions Uber has faced since six people were gunned down and two others injured Saturday night in Kalamazoo, illustrates that for Uber, this is about more than one driver and the tragic aftermath of his rampage. The controversial ride-hailing service, which at $51 billion is listed as the world’s most valuable private company by CB Insights, has long faced attacks over its safety policies. Uber agreed to pay $28.5 million less than two weeks ago to settle claims that it misled customers about the adequacy of its background checks, and the company faces several lawsuits by women who claim they were assaulted by Uber drivers.

“It’s every corporation’s worst nightmare,” Margaret Richardson, an attorney at Covington & Burling who serves on Uber’s Safety Advisory Board, said of Saturday’s shootings. She spoke during Monday’s call.

Authorities are investigating claims that Dalton picked up and dropped off passengers between the shootings at an apartment complex, a car dealership and a Cracker Barrel restaurant, 1st Lt. Dale Hinz of the Michigan State Police said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News.

Sullivan wouldn’t divulge how many riders complained about Dalton, when Uber received those complaints, or how the company responded. But rider Matt Mellen told WWMT-TV in Kalamazoo that Dalton picked him up before the rampage and was driving erratically and running stop signs until Mellen jumped out of the car and ran.

“We are horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo, Michigan,” Sullivan wrote in a statement the day after the attacks. “We have reached out to the police to help with their investigation in any way that we can.”

Dalton had no prior criminal history, and there appears to be nothing Uber could have done to keep him off the road or prevent Saturday’s attacks, Hinz said. Sullivan echoed that sentiment, stressing that Dalton had passed Uber’s driver background check without raising red flags. Dalton had been an Uber driver for about a month, Sullivan said, and had given more than 100 rides. He had a good passenger rating — 4.73 stars out of 5. But in the wake of the shooting, Uber critics have attacked the company for being lax on passenger safety.

Uber uses private San Francisco-based company Checkr to conduct background checks on its drivers, which Sullivan says includes checking the county courthouses in every place the driver has lived for the past seven years. If the records aren’t online, Uber dispatches someone to the courthouse in person, he said.

“As it stands right now, the system that Uber has is extremely safe,” said retired Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, a member of Uber’s Safety Advisory Board who was on Monday’s call.

But unlike most California taxi drivers, Uber drivers aren’t subject to government fingerprint checks, which Dave Sutton of taxi industry-backed campaign Who’s Driving You views as a problem. Uber’s checks can’t catch someone who is signing up for the platform under a false name, he said, and they don’t reveal as much information as a government check. Uber also doesn’t meet its potential drivers face to face during the screening process, a step Sutton says is important.

“You get a chance to say whether you’re getting kind of an off vibe or not,” he said, “whether the person seems normal or whether there seems something off about them.”

Richardson said fingerprint screenings are no more accurate than Uber’s checks and can wrongly disqualify drivers who were arrested but didn’t have charges filed.

“I don’t think that we will be changing our screening processes for on-boarding our driver partners as a result of this incident,” Sullivan said, adding that Uber continues to improve its safety technology, such as its GPS tracking system that lets passengers share their location in real time.

For Harry Campbell, an Uber driver and blogger on http://therideshareguy.com, the fact that passengers complained about Dalton was disconcerting.

“I think it kind of speaks to the larger aspect that it’s very difficult to get a hold of Uber in person,” he said. “And when you do get a hold of someone over email or over chat, they’re often not very well-trained and not very helpful.”

©2016 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.