MORE THAN 30 years in law enforcement has taught me that the phrase “the only constant is change” is undeniably true. The pace of change is only accelerating and law enforcement must acknowledge the benefits and challenges that advancements in technology bring. We live in a reality where innovation can add value for both law enforcement and the public, but simultaneously raises questions about how we evaluate the risk of harm.
An example of this is ridesharing, which has captured my attention as it swept through the Commonwealth and beyond over the last few years. Since ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have entered Massachusetts, I have seen the safety and security benefits they bring to our less-than-perfect transportation network. Since my retirement from the Boston Police, I have joined Uber as an advisor. Working with them is an opportunity for me to be side-by-side with people who are changing the way we move around cities and to give them the benefit of my experience in keeping people safe.
The future of these ridesharing technologies in Massachusetts will be determined by regulations currently under consideration by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Financial Services. As part of the legislative process, companies such as Uber and Lyft will have the opportunity to explain how they operate and how they keep riders safe. I hope the committee brings forth legislation allowing residents of the Commonwealth to enjoy safe, secure rides while permitting continued innovation in transportation. And as a resident of the Commonwealth, I am confident the bill introduced by Gov. Charlie Baker will create the most advanced background check system in the country — I wholeheartedly support its passage.
Secretary of Public Safety Daniel Bennett, a law enforcement veteran, has testified to the strength of the background check system mandated in the bill introduced by Gov. Baker. He also recognized fingerprint-based background checks are not foolproof. I agree there is no perfect system, and clearly no pre-screening system can keep crimes from happening. As such, fingerprinting is not a guaranteed solution when it comes to keeping riders and drivers safe — it’s simply another tool that presents its own logistical and technical challenges and would inherently discriminate against people who should have an opportunity to drive. The true “gold standard” is a holistic safety approach that improves accuracy and fairness by including measures taken before, during and after the trip.
Companies like Uber should not rely on background checks alone to ensure the safety of riders. Technology features that can mitigate and prevent incidents during and after the ride have proven to be just as important — and there is an opportunity for ridesharing companies to raise the bar even higher.
For example, Uber’s technology is designed to keep riders and drivers safe. Before a rider gets in the car, they can see information about their driver including a name, photo, license plate number, make of the car and overall rating. Every trip is GPS-tracked, which ensures we know where riders are along the way. And after each trip, both riders and drivers are required to rate each other. The accountability introduced by live tracking and a feedback system goes a long way to deter bad behavior.
We also see ridesharing companies constantly evolving and improving their technology — which they should be encouraged to do. Uber has introduced a way for riders and drivers to contact each other with disguised phone numbers. Last week, the company announced a new, improved version of its “Share my ETA” feature called “SafetyNet” in Boston. The updated feature allows riders to pre-select contacts who can receive a link providing details about their ride — including a map of where they are– all at the push of a button. SafetyNet’s notifications come from within the Uber app, allowing riders without text messaging plans to utilize this important feature.
This type of continuous improvement to the Uber platform is exactly what we should need to vastly improve the state of transportation safety. And all of this happens on top of the rigorous pre-screening process that Uber requires before drivers are allowed on the platform. It includes a motor vehicle record check, and a criminal background check that looks at a series of national, state and local databases including the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Website –conducted by a third party vendor who is accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.
In my experience as a law enforcement official, Uber is a technology that brings added safety and accountability to transportation. It would be a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people who have come to depend on Uber’s service and income opportunities to let unnecessary restrictions push this valuable technology out of the Commonwealth.
Massachusetts legislators have an opportunity this legislative session, an opportunity to stand up for safety and innovation and stand with the thousands of partners and hundreds of thousands of riders who have grown to love and rely on Uber as a safe transportation option.
If we keep our eyes open to the benefits of technology and work quickly to mitigate the risks, we can make sure that living in a world of constant change is a positive for the people who have entrusted us with keeping them safe.
Ed Davis is the former Commissioner of the Boston Police Department and a 30-year veteran of law enforcement. He is currently the CEO of Edward Davis, LLC, a private security consulting firm.