Boston police on Monday began fingerprinting more than 6,000 cabdrivers who operate in the city, in an effort to “ensure the highest standards of safety for the traveling public.”
In a statement, the Boston Police Department said officers in its Hackney Carriage Unit, which licenses all taxicabs, “will now have another investigative resource at their disposal to allow them to conduct even more thorough background checks.”
The issue of fingerprinting drivers has been a flashpoint in recent months in a dispute between Police Commissioner William B. Evans and popular ride-hailing companies such as Uber. Police currently have no regulatory power over such companies.
Evans has called for ride-hailing drivers to be fingerprinted, as well. Legislation pending on Beacon Hill would require fingerprinting, among other provisions that would tighten regulations for the rapidly expanding companies.
Uber faced renewed questions Monday about the screening of its drivers after a shooting massacre in Kalamazoo, Mich., allegedly by one of its drivers.
The company has repeatedly cited its own background checks and constant customer feedback on drivers as effective tools for ensuring patrons’ safety, and it criticized mandatory fingerprinting in a brief statement Monday night.
“Fingerprint based background checks rely on an incomplete data set that are discriminatory, while Uber’s technology provides safety features before, during and after each trip, also including a thorough background check that includes searching court records at the county courthouse level,” the statement said.
But Evans on Monday praised his department’s initiative, which will require cabdrivers to submit to fingerprinting as part of their annual license renewals.
“The cabdrivers in this city are hardworking men and women who welcomed this new safety requirement,” he said in a statement.
“When the citizens of Boston get into a cab, they trust that operator to get them to their destination safely every single time. Fingerprinting is another step we can take as a police department to help make sure that happens.”
The commissioner said a minor crime will not bar someone from driving a taxicab, but fingerprinting will help police screen out sex offenders, people who have committed violence, or applicants with dangerous driving records.
Donna Blythe-Shaw of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, an advocacy group for cabdrivers, said her members agree that fingerprinting is necessary but believe ride-hailing companies should have to play by the same rules.
“I think it’s kind of backwards,” she said of the Police Department’s announcement Monday.
“Before they go after the cabdrivers and [force them to] incur more costs, they should go after [the ride-share] drivers who have no proper vetting at all. It’s just putting the cart before the horse.”
She continued: “I would like to see, quite frankly, law enforcement doing more and stepping it up to get [ride-hailing] drivers properly vetted for public safety, especially after this last incident in Kalamazoo.”
Blythe-Shaw was referring to a weekend shooting rampage in which Uber driver Jason Dalton allegedly killed six people.
Locally, a former Uber driver was convicted in a Boston court on Friday of physically assaulting a 21-year-old woman while she was a passenger in his vehicle last year, according to Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office.
The driver, Abderrahim Dakiri, was arrested in February 2015 on a charge of indecent assault and battery after the woman alleged that he had touched her indecently several times, but he was convicted of the lesser charge.
Boston police officials denied that Monday’s announcement was aimed at pressuring the ride-hailing companies, noting that cabdrivers were fingerprinted ahead of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Boston.
“It’s something that’s been in place since then; we just haven’t had the resources to do it,” said Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for the department.
Evans, in an interview on Monday, added that police “started thinking about this two years ago . . . It’s not about putting pressure on” ride-hailing companies.
“This is about public safety, and public safety alone,” he said.
Uber and civil rights advocates recently argued that fingerprinting could bar minorities who have arrest records but no convictions from getting jobs in the ride-hailing industry — in part because a federal database that contains the fingerprints of arrested individuals does not always hold information on whether the person was convicted.
Evans on Monday rejected that notion, saying that fingerprinting allows his officers to have face-to-face conversations with prospective drivers to gauge their suitability.
“We’re looking at [barring] someone who has a terrible driving record, sexual offenses, violent offenses, that type of stuff,” he said.
“I don’t like the fact that Uber tried to make it that this was going to play out against minorities.”
Boston is not alone in requiring taxicab drivers to submit to fingerprinting, said Dave Sutton, a spokesman for a campaign launched by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association to tighten regulations for ride-hailing services.
“Our understanding is that the vast majority of major American cities” require taxicab drivers to be fingerprinted, and some cities, including New York, Austin and Houston in Texas, and Columbus, Ohio, mandate fingerprinting for taxi drivers as well as for those in ride-hailing businesses, Sutton said.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh told reporters after an event Monday that fingerprinting “comes down to public safety first. It is important to know the background of the people driving.”