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NAACP, Uber chide fingerprint proposal

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Michael Curry, head of the local branch of the NAACP.
Michael Curry, head of the local branch of the NAACP.(David L. Ryan)

Civil rights groups and the ride-hailing service Uber on Thursday pushed back against a proposal to require drivers for the company and its competitors to be fingerprinted, despite strong support for the measure from police officials.

The proposal is pending in the state Legislature and has the backing of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, which said in a recent letter to lawmakers the initiative would ensure that applicants with criminal records cannot hide them by providing fake identities.

The NAACP and ACLU of Massachusetts say the proposal could bar minorities who have arrest records but no convictions from getting jobs in the rapidly growing industry. A federal database containing fingerprints of arrested individuals does not always contain information on whether or not the person was convicted.

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Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said communities of color are "more engaged by police officers," which often leads to arrests that do not result in convictions. "We don't want to create more barriers to jobs," Curry said, adding that the unemployment rate has historically been higher in minority neighborhoods.

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, echoed those comments and stressed in a statement that arrests "are not convictions."

She said the "database that municipalities across Massachusetts submit both civil and criminal fingerprints to is riddled with errors.''

The police chiefs association could not be reached for comment Thursday night, but a spokesman for the Boston Police Department, which regulates taxi cabs and backs the fingerprinting measure, said an arrest record does not necessarily disqualify a driver.

"The purpose of fingerprinting is to make sure the person that's applying for the job is in fact" whom they claim to be, said Lieutenant Michael McCarthy. "We have certain guidelines that are set up, [and] certain disqualifiers. ... an OUI conviction, habitual traffic offenders. We look at the sex offender registry, felony convictions. It's a very thorough background check."

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He said "an arrest record is one thing we look at, but it's not the only thing.''

Boston police currently do not fingerprint cab drivers, but Commissioner William B. Evans told the Globe Wednesday that fingerprinting will begin in the city for current and prospective taxi drivers within a month.

However, Evans's predecessor, Edward F. Davis, now a consultant for Uber, cautioned Thursday that "no database has perfect information in it."

He said Uber is a boon for customers in minority neighborhoods, where cabs are not always available.

During his tenure as commissioner, Davis said, "a constant refrain from neighborhoods of color in Boston was that they couldn't get cab service. ... Uber has solved that problem."

He said current company protocols, which include background checks and constant customer feedback on drivers, already provide for a safe riding experience. Drivers who receive low ratings for safety and courtesy first receive intervention, then are terminated if poor evaluations continue.

"You're going to find out if there's a problem with someone, and action will be taken before there's a major incident," said Davis, who also provides security services for The Boston Globe.

McCarthy, the police spokesman, said that Uber's practices may be effective for drivers who have been hired, but "it's just as important to have a system to prevent criminals from getting on the job in the first place."

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Brian MacQuarrie of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.