Arrest of Columbia Uber driver highlights change in background checks

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In Missouri, Uber is solely responsible for checking into the backgrounds of people who want to drive since the passage of a law last April that superseded Columbia's more stringent ordinance.

The city had required that background checks for ride-share drivers be approved through the city and that drivers be held to the same standards as those who drive for taxi companies.

Anthony Todd Rowell, who was arrested Tuesday in connection with an attempted abduction in Columbia, drove for Uber, according to a social media post. In 2010, Rowell had a year-long restraining order taken out against him for adult abuse without stalking.

Columbia Police Department Public Information Officer Bryana Larimer said Friday the department was aware Rowell was an Uber driver and that Uber was cooperating with the investigation.

Uber was unreachable Thursday to answer questions about whether Rowell had undergone a background check.

In an interview Friday, Third Ward City Councilman Karl Skala said the ordinance Columbia passed was intended to "meet the community's request for adequate governance of clear safety concerns." It required Uber drivers — like taxi drivers — to undergo a background check and have their vehicle inspected by the city.

The legislation passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Eric Greitens left background checks to the ride-share companies. Greitens said the law would open local economies up to vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft.

Greitens received a donation from Uber to help fund his inaugural celebration, though he refused to release the amount he received.

"Lots of other industries go over our head to the state and erode local protections," Skala said. "When we're dealing with issues at the local level, we're listening to all the stakeholders."

Kenny Wilcox has been driving for Uber in Columbia for about 14 months and said he went through that process without a hitch.

According to its website, Uber conducts criminal background checks going back seven years on applicants. The checks are conducted by a third party, which is accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.

The check is also supposed to flag major moving violations, such as DUIs and reckless driving, along with criminal histories, including felony convictions, violent crimes and sexual offenses.

Harry Campbell, who runs the popular blog and podcast TheRideshareGuy, said a majority of Uber drivers are open to more extensive background checks, based on more than a thousand responses he received to a survey he conducted. Kansas City officials fought with Uber in 2015 over fingerprint background checks but ultimately passed an ordinance without the additional safety measure. Instead, Uber agreed to provide information on background checks that was previously withheld due to privacy concerns.

"I think fingerprints would actually be a good thing for drivers, but Uber is staunchly opposed to this and has even pulled out of cities like Austin over fingerprinting requirements," Campbell said in an email. "Most drivers are happy to submit to fingerprints as they feel it makes the service safer."

Lyft did withdraw its services in Kansas City, citing too much regulation, but returned after the statewide bill was passed.

Skala had doubts about working with Uber before the statewide legislation was passed.

"I had a favorable view toward Uber until I started to kind of dig into their history, and they had some notable background check failures, some domestically and some internationally," Skala said.

The problem made headlines in Missouri last June when a Kansas City woman sued Uber, claiming an Uber driver sexually assaulted her. The driver had spent eight months in prison previously for attempted murder, and a complaint had been filed against him previously with Uber, according to a story in the Kansas City Star.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed

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