The East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) yesterday announced it had opened an investigation into “two reports of Criminal Sexual Conduct (CSC) involving drivers with a Transportation Network Company, commonly known as a rideshare service.” The Police are not giving many details, but indicate in the announcement that, “In both cases, the victims were female Michigan State University Students who were picked up near downtown East Lansing by a rideshare driver and, in both cases, the victims reported that the driver made unwelcome sexual advances towards them.”
The category of “criminal sexual conduct” includes a wide variety of offenses. Michigan’s legal definition of criminal sexual conduct includes, for example, touching someone through her or his clothes without her or his consent through the use of force or intimidation. Without details provided by the police as to the alleged contact, it is impossible to know what is said to have transpired in these two cases other than that the alleged victims reported “unwelcome sexual advances.”
The police did not name the rideshare service involved. Uber is the largest and best known online “rideshare” service. With Uber and similar companies, customers use their smartphones to call for a driver to take them to their destination.
ELPD included in yesterday’s announcement a message suggesting rideshare services are not to be trusted like taxi companies: “ELPD would like to make sure that the public is aware that rideshare services do not undergo the same regulatory procedures as traditional taxi companies with the Greater Lansing Taxi Authority.”
As ELi has reported for its readers, the City of East Lansing recently joined the new Greater Lansing Taxi Authority. The Taxi Authority strictly regulates conventional taxi companies and charges them for participation. Those participating also must agree to subject themselves to substantial scrutiny by local police agencies. Uber drivers are not subject to the same Taxi Authority fees as local taxis wishing to service East Lansing, nor are they required to agree to the same degree of scrutiny by local police.
The recent murders in Kalamazoo by Jason Brian Dalton brought negative publicity to Uber because Dalton had just become a driver for the service and was apparently picking up customers between murder scenes. According to news reports, Dalton did not have a criminal background that prohibited him from driving for Uber or from purchasing weapons.
Uber does background checks on all of its drivers before allowing them to participate. The screening includes “a review of their motor vehicle records and a search through criminal records at the county, state, and federal levels.” Uber says that an added level of safety comes from the fact that customers can anonymously rate individual drivers.
Customers seeking a ride can see ratings of potential Uber drivers and choose the one with whom they feel safe. This is not currently possible with conventional taxi services.
That the alleged victims are MSU students may matter to understanding how and why this situation is being reported by police. Federal law requires that universities adequately document and report all crimes, or face punishment. The Clery Act, which was expanded in 2013, is designed to push universities and their police departments to adequately investigate, document, and report all crimes that occur on campuses, adjacent to campuses, or off campuses if they occur in a circumstance associated with a university. Title IX is also implicated here, as it covers management of sexual complaints.
MSU has recently been under investigation by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights for failing to appropriately handle sexual assault complaints. According to The State News, MSU was found by the Office of Civil Rights to have taken too long to respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints and to have failed to document cases appropriately. Consequently, the University has recently been working hard to fix its legal problems and reputation.
While this latest investigation is occurring under the purview of ELPD and not MSU Police, in ELi’s recent interview with ELPD Chief Jeff Murphy, Murphy indicated that the two units have been working together on sexual assault cases. This includes a recent case where an MSU student claimed to have been picked up in a van by three men and sexually assaulted by them. In that case, the charges were dropped subsequent to further investigation, when the alleged victim’s original story was found to be unsupported.
As we have learned from talking with officers, if a campus or near-campus police department fails quickly to report an alleged sexual assault, it may be subject not only to legal scrutiny, but also to local criticism, even if the department ultimately finds no basis for prosecution.
ELi will continue to follow this story.
Update: Post-publication this article was amended to remove a statement about Uber's status with the State of Michigan.