PHOENIX – Inside the 23-story Bank of America Tower in downtown Phoenix, a team of nearly 80 specialized workers grapples with some of the worst incidents that happen in Uber rides. Armed with little more than a phone headset and GPS ride data, these agents in the Special Investigations Unit have to figure out what went wrong.

But when they make a determination, the SIU investigators are coached by Uber to act in the company’s interest first, ahead of passenger safety, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former investigators. Uber has a three-strikes system, investigators said, but executives have made exceptions to keep drivers on the road. For instance, a New York-area driver allegedly made three separate sexual advances on riders, said an investigator assigned to the case. After an executive overruled the investigator, the driver was allowed to continue working until a fourth incident, when a rider claimed he raped her.

Uber makes changes amid swarm of criticism over rider safety

The agents are forbidden by Uber from routing allegations to police or from advising victims to seek legal counsel or make their own police reports, even when they get confessions of felonies, said Lilli Flores, a former investigator in Phoenix – a guideline corroborated in interviews with investigators, alleged victims and plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“Investigators are there first to protect Uber; and then next to protect the customer,” said Flores, who worked nearly two years for Uber as an investigator and investigations trainer before leaving in November. “Our job is to keep the tone of our conversations with customers and drivers so that Uber is not held liable.”

Even in the most severe cases, when Uber kicks drivers off the platform, it doesn’t convey the information to police, other ride-share companies or background check firms, investigators said, steps that could prevent the driver from working for other companies.

Uber’s investigative process is broken, according to people who have worked there, stymied by Uber’s insistence that its drivers are independent contractors and not employees – and therefore it isn’t responsible for their actions. As a result of its transformation of transportation, Uber has created new risks for riders and drivers that it largely keeps at arm’s length – even more so as it is under financial pressure from a bungled IPO.

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Uber disputes the allegations by investigators that protecting the company comes first. “We created the SIU team not to shelter us from legal liability, but to provide specialized customer support to riders and drivers dealing with very serious real-life situations,” Uber spokeswoman Jodi Page said in a statement. “Characterizing this team as anything but providing support to people after a difficult experience is just wrong. We will continue to put safety at the heart of everything we do and implement new approaches, based on expert guidance, to the benefit of both our customers and employees.”

But investigators say Uber’s process leaves bad actors on the road. One investigator recalled the San Francisco driver who purportedly forced his way into the back seat and put his hand up a passenger’s blouse before she struggled free. Another heard from riders that their driver threatened them with a hammer hidden under his seat. Neither lost their driving privileges at the time.

Flores said in her time there about one-third of cases handled by investigators dealt with sexual misconduct, including rape or unwanted flirtation or advances.

The process can fail victims because they often have no idea if their concerns have been addressed, riders and drivers said. Sara Alfageeh alleged that her driver held her and a friend captive on the freeway near Charlotte, turning a 15-minute drive into a 45-minute one by driving the wrong way to “continue the conversation.” After reporting it to Uber and speaking with an investigator, she said Uber simply refunded her money and said she wouldn’t be matched with the driver again.

“There’s no way of knowing if he’s doing this with other riders,” said Alfageeh, a professional illustrator. Uber confirmed they followed up with her by phone and refunded her fare.

“At the end of the day, we’re not the judge and jury to determine whether a crime has occurred,” said Tracey Breeden, Uber’s global head of women’s safety. “We’re here to gather information, make a business decision. We’re not law enforcement.”

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The investigators said they are taught to avoid asking alleged perpetrators directly about the claims against them. And to alleged victims, to only offer condolences that distance Uber from a purported incident: “No one should have to go through something like that” rather than “I am so sorry that happened to you.”

Uber said its responses are designed around empathy and include “I’m so sorry to hear what you have reported.”

Under Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber has said it is “putting safety at the heart of everything we do,” and the vast majority of Uber’s more than 16 million daily trips end without incident. “Safety is a priority and we’re certainly doing what we can – whether it’s through our technology or our programs and initiatives – to put safety first,” Breeden said.

Uber’s policy not to share its findings with background check firms, competitors or law enforcement is about being “survivor-centric,” Breeden said. “A survivor should be able to own their story, they should be able to want to choose whether they provide that information to police.”

But alleged crimes – especially sexual misconduct – happen during ride-hailing trips at an alarming rate, investigators said. In Chicago alone, more than 300 drivers were banned from Uber, Lyft and rival Via for allegations of sexual misconduct between January 2016 and August 2019, according to data obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request.

More than 1,100 of the nearly 70,000 active registered drivers in the city were barred for matters of safety during that time, according to the data, which showed that drug use or possession and traffic accidents ranked after sexual misconduct as the top reasons for a driver being blocked. The number of drivers blocked from using an app, known as a deactivation, is probably in the thousands in Chicago for more minor issues, such as faulty paperwork or low passenger ratings, which don’t require the same disclosure, according to a person familiar with the matter. If investigators pursued accusations of misconduct more aggressively, the number of drivers banned would probably be higher, the investigators said.

Many investigators said they understood that if they contacted the police or advised victims to do so, they could be reprimanded or even fired. (The exception, according to investigators, is if a passenger or driver is in immediate and present danger, such as a burning vehicle.)

Uber disputed the claim and said “it is the victim’s choice to report an incident to police, not Uber’s.” The company added that it introduced an option over a month ago “where we would advise that what is being reported may be a crime to give people the option to allow us to contact law enforcement on their behalf.”

A separate unit, called the Law Enforcement Response Team, or LERT, is used when police are already involved, such as reported accidents or assaults, and is staffed primarily with attorneys, former police officers and those with experience in the field.

Many companies go to great lengths to limit their liability. But gig economy companies fall in a new category where the question of their liability is still up in the air. There is a different standard of accountability than for the taxi industry, where cab companies generally maintain direct control over the condition and quality of rides and can therefore bear full responsibility for what happens during a fare, according to fleet managers.

Uber, on the other hand, argues it’s a platform, a term many tech companies use to distinguish themselves from the industries that came before them. The distinction helps shelter the companies from responsibility for what happens in the course of using their service.

Uber asserts it is a technology platform, or the middleman, between riders and drivers, and so it generally cannot be held culpable for what occurs during a ride. Earlier this month, discussing its opposition to a new California labor law that could convert contract drivers to employee status, Uber contended that “drivers’ work is outside the usual course of Uber’s business.” The same logic applies to e-commerce operators and vacation-rental firms, which generally hold that their direct responsibility ends after linking buyers and sellers, rather than for the goods or lodging. Courts have largely sided with industry, often citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has shielded technology platforms from what happens on them.

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Lyft too has faced multiple lawsuits over conduct during rides, as well as accidents and other conflicts. Its trust and safety team has a similar charge to Uber’s, though at a much smaller scale, out of an office in Nashville. Interviews with Lyft employees indicate that the company also seeks to limit its liability for driver and passenger behavior, in part by deactivating drivers or riders. Earlier this month, 14 women filed suit against Lyft saying they had been sexually assaulted by drivers over the past two years. “Safety is fundamental to Lyft. We work closely with regulators around the country to help ensure the safety of drivers and riders,” said spokesman Adrian Durbin.

Uber and Lyft have spent millions lobbying to maintain their legal distance from drivers, who come and go. Classifying drivers as independent contractors allows them to operate lean organizations without having to pay salaries, benefits or costs like fuel and vehicle insurance.

“Uber and these gig economy companies have very successfully argued that their liability is limited because they’re just platforms,” said Veena Dubal, a University of California Hastings College of the Law professor, who has studied app companies. “So naturally that extends to the rides or the delivery service – the companies can’t be responsible, because these people aren’t their employees.”

Even while arguing it shouldn’t be held liable for driver or rider conduct, Uber has sought to settle cases quickly to avoid the scrutiny of open court, according to numerous attorneys who have sued the firm. It’s an expensive strategy. Uber, for instance, settled a highly publicized case for roughly $25 million last year involving more than 20 women who alleged various sexual assaults in rides hailed on the app, according to a person familiar with the matter. Uber said the account of the settlement terms was “speculation” that “continues to bring harm and victimize the women involved.” The lead attorney for the alleged victims, Jeanne Christensen of Wigdor LLP, declined to comment.

Uber has released little data about problematic rides on its service. It has been promising since at least May 2018 to publish a detailed accounting of sexual allegation charges that occur in vehicles in the United States. Breeden said the report would be available by year’s end, noting that compiling the data “takes a lot of time.”

After The Post’s report was published, Sen. Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Wednesday assailed Uber and Lyft for their responses to driver misconduct in letters to the companies’ CEOs. He called on Uber to release the transparency report about sexual misconduct allegations during rides and for both ride-hailing firms to commit to fingerprint-based background checks for their drivers, among other safety measures.

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Uber relies on a three-strikes system that can allow bad actors – both drivers and riders – to keep using the app until three uncorroborated allegations are made, according to the more than 20 current and former investigators. For more egregious claims, it is generally two such strikes, they said. Without corroborating evidence, such as a police report or rape kit, they said, they don’t have the time, resources or encouragement to delve deeply into most allegations. If drivers or passengers deny the allegations, investigators said they often have little recourse with Uber but to briefly suspend access to the app and possibly refund a passenger’s money.

Uber said “many of the policies” described by investigators “are out of date” and said there is no “one size fits all” approach. Ruffin Chevaleau, Uber director of U.S. and Canada centers of excellence, said, “We look more for patterns.”

“For the most severe cases – sexual assault – that means that the person is removed” from accessing the app permanently and after one infraction, she said. A typical case is resolved within three to five days, she said.

Even the strikes system can be superseded by Uber executives who may be motivated to keep as many drivers on the road as possible, investigators said. In one case, an investigator said he had recommended a driver – who already had two strikes – be permanently deactivated after the driver attempted to rub the leg of a female passenger without her consent. (The driver denied the allegations, according to the investigator.) An Uber executive, noting the driver was a high earner and had completed more than 10,000 rides, allowed him to continue taking fares, according to the investigator.

Uber said the incident occurred in 2017 and that its “processes and policies have evolved.” It added that its city managers no longer “have the authority to overturn the outcome of an investigation.”

In a civil suit against Uber filed last year in Chattanooga, Tenn., that is still ongoing, two female riders allege a driver sexually assaulted them because Uber failed to keep him off the road following the first woman’s claim he groped her breast and compelled her to grab his penis. Within 15 days after that alleged incident, he exposed himself to the second woman and tried to grab her, according to the complaint.

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The risk inherent in not informing background check firms or other ride-hailing companies of bad drivers came into stark relief over the summer when Chicago officials found that an Uber driver who fatally kicked a taxi driver in a 2018 dispute had been deactivated for punching a passenger weeks earlier while driving for Lyft, which had failed to report it. Had the company disclosed it to the city, as required within 48 hours, Uber may not have allowed the driver, who has since fled to China, to work for them, officials contend. Lyft has admitted the error and will pay a $10,000 fine.

Formed in 2017 as an offshoot of what was known as the Incident Response Team, the SIU differs from many tech firms’ approaches to customer service by directly employing its workers, rather than relying on contract firms abroad.

Although SIU investigators like Flores may handle sensitive incidents, like sexual assaults or fatal accidents, Uber said it only recently began requiring a minimum of one year’s prior experience conducting investigations or handling safety calls or insurance claims. Among those Uber has previously hired for the post are a former fry cook, grocery store cashier and barista, though job postings indicate backgrounds in law enforcement or human resources investigations are “strongly preferred,” and some investigators have psychology or law enforcement experience.

Customer or driver claims are filed through the Uber app and then routed to agents who determine whether the matter requires an investigation, generally known as Level 3 or Level 4 incidents, such as severe accidents or claims of assault, investigators said. Investigators, who receive six weeks of training, estimate about three-quarters of complaints are made against drivers.

Complaints are filed through the “my driver was unprofessional” or “accident” sections of the app and then routed to investigators, the agents said. Relying on GPS data, internal account information and any other evidence available, the workers call both the driver and rider and try to determine the truth. Some such investigations may last just minutes, while more complicated ones can stretch for hours or days. Investigators said there are a number of false complaints by passengers seeking to get their fare refunded.

Because of the sheer number of tickets that flow through investigators’ queue, they rarely have time to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch talking to victims and the accused, the workers said. Several investigators said managers send instant messages to nudge them when a call lasts too long.

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In the end, it is often a judgment call, investigators said, which can leave both parties dissatisfied. Uber also doesn’t share details of its determination with the complainant, typically just saying they won’t be matched for a future ride with the offending party. That can leave aggrieved riders wondering whether a dangerous driver is still picking up fares.

While traveling in Florida in January, Denise Wood, of Fargo, North Dakota, said her Uber driver locked her in his car and tried to force her to get in the front seat next to him. When she refused, he began masturbating, she said, before she managed to get out of the car. Although Wood filed a complaint through Uber’s app and was emailed by an investigator, she said she could never speak with the person to discuss her case. Uber said the driver made a first report about the rider’s behavior, and it cut off Wood’s access to the app because it was unsuccessful in contacting her over several attempts.

Her driver, she said, may still be on the road for Uber.

“There’s just no reason to believe they care,” said Wood, a self-help book author. “If they cared, they would take my information and take this sexual predator off the road. What if he’s out there doing this to someone else?”

Video: Former and current Uber employees say investigators keep the worst behavior by customers and drivers under wraps and protect Uber from liability.(Greg Bensinger and Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)