Denver Uber shooting, other incidents raise questions about company's safety policies

Posted at 3:05 PM, Jun 01, 2018

A Denver Uber driver who is accused of shooting and killing one of his passengers early Friday morning has had his access to the app revoked, the company says, but he never should have had a gun in the vehicle in the first place, per company policy.

Uber confirmed Thursday afternoon that Michael A. Hancock, 29, who faces investigation on a first-degree murder charge for the shooting, had access to the app for nearly three years before Friday’s shooting and that the shooting appears to have occurred during an on-app trip.

But Uber has a firearms prohibition policy, which states that “Uber prohibits riders and drivers from carrying firearms of any kind in a vehicle while using our app (to the extant applicable by law).”

“Anyone who violates this policy may lose access to Uber,” the company’s policy, which is part of its community guidelines, states.

“We are deeply troubled by the events in Denver today,” an Uber spokesperson told Denver7 Friday.

Hancock has a history of traffic infractions in Colorado in recent years, and he was charged with driving under restraint and a speeding infraction on April 21 in Douglas County, according to state court records.

Friday’s shooting is the latest of several incidents in Colorado involving the ridesharing company in recent years.

In 2015, Colorado regulators re-examined the background check process that Uber and other ridesharing companies use after one Uber driver was accused of trying to burglarize a Denver passenger's home  and another Uber driver was accused of sexually assaulting a passenger in Denver.

A Contact7 investigation in May exposed at least 20 incidents over the past four years where Colorado drivers or passengers were accused of making unwanted sexual advances while using a ridesharing service.

However, of those cases, only two led to arrest warrants or criminal charges, according to court filings. Both cases were brought against drivers. The remaining cases were either dismissed or never pursued because of a lack of evidence or victim cooperation.

Last July, Uber launched a campaign to warn prospective passengers of fake drivers after at least two people were caught impersonating company drivers.

And later that year, in November, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission levied an initial fine of $8.9 million on Uber’s parent company after the PUC found there were 57 drivers in the state who were driving when they weren’t supposed to be.

But the PUC cut the fine in half after the company protested that many of the violations didn’t apply legally. The PUC ended up dismissing about half of its violations.

And earlier this year, a University of Denver professor claimed an Uber driver wouldn’t let her out of the car on a trip to the airport. She never filed a police report, however. The company said at the time it had blocked the driver involved from the app and that it was investigating.

Despite the incidents and infractions, Friday’s shooting death was one of few fatalities that have occurred solely because of violence involving an Uber ride.

A Michigan driver shot and killed six people in 2016, prompting further investigations nationwide into the company's background check system.

Last May, a man driving for Uber who once attended the University of Colorado was allegedly murdered by a teenage passenger with a machete in Illinois.

In August, a Florida man died after he was punched by his Uber driver. And in November, another Florida man attacked his Uber driver, who ended up shooting the man in self-defense.

The company announced in April it was piloting an in-app 911 service in Denver and that it had strengthened its background check system. At the time, it also announced that former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was taking over as the chair of the company’s safety advisory board.

But some have still said that's not enough. A Bloomberg op-ed published May 1 in the Chicago Tribune said Uber needs to do more to report data on violent incidents involving its drivers. According to Uber's website, private parties need to subpoena the company for data requests.

“Our thoughts are with the families of those involved,” an Uber spokesperson told Denver7 Friday in response to the latest shooting in Denver.

RELATED: Uber posts new child car seat alert after ABC15 investigation

What drivers and riders have to say

The shooting Friday morning certainly has both riders and drivers alarmed.

"It was really disappointing and unfortunate, you know," said Ken Blanco, a driver for Lyft.

"That's really sad that something so casual could turn into something violent," said a visitor from Arizona.

In the court of public opinion, riders expressed mixed feeling when we asked if drivers should be armed.

“I don't think so," said Uber user Max Simmons.

"I don't think they should," said a Denver resident.

Other riders say drivers should be allowed a measure of protection.

"I'm for responsible gun ownership and knife ownership, as well," said Uber rider Emily Wright. “You should be allowed to have one because as an Uber driver, it’s for your own protection."

“I think there definitely needs to be a discussion," said another rider.

Uber driver Mike Baker tells Denver7 he doesn't understand how the situation escalated so fast.

"How does it get to that point?” Baker said. “From, ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’ To – bang! You're dead."

In two years as an Uber driver, Baker has given an estimated 3,000 rides and says he's only had one bad experience.

“A guy from New York,” Baker said. “Not that I don’t love my New Yorkers. But, he's like, 'I don't mean to be a jerk.' And I'm like - 'Well, then don't be a jerk. It's so much easier to be nice to people.'"

There are more sides to this debate, as well.

Just last month, Denver7 investigator Ryan Luby uncovered many dangers of ride-sharing, including 20 reported cases of sexual assault in Denver alone.

Wright says as a female, she never rides alone.

“For sure,” she said. “I usually don't go without somebody else. That buddy system is ingrained since college, I guess."

And still, others say they've never had an issue.

“I've never had a bad Uber experience. Ever," said a female rider.

Another perspective is about personal comfort for both the driver and the rider. It’s unclear if the rider in the deadly case was riding in the front seat or the back.

Uber and Lyft allow riders to sit in the front passenger seat. There are no rules.

Blanco says he doesn't believe any driver needs a gun.

“I don't think in any workplace that you should be armed whatsoever," he said.

 He also worries about how this might impact his business.

“People are going to think, 'How are Uber drivers any different than Lyft drivers?'" Blanco said.

But Baker says every job has its dangers.

“Just like what you do for a living,” Baker said to Denver7 reporter Russell Haythorn. “You might do an interview with somebody - they might be the greatest thing. And then, the next guy comes along, and he wants to beat you on live television."

A lot to consider in a world where convenience often trumps concern.

"It kind of changes my mind about ride-share," said an Uber user. “It's kind of crazy because you get in an Uber and you feel like you're safe. Especially if you're out of town."