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Watchdogs Urge Better Reporting Of Cruise Ship Crime

Does what happens on a cruise ship stay on the cruise ship?

That’s the question some people — including a U.S. senator — are asking cruise lines. It shouldn’t be that way, say some industry watchdogs about what they call questionable reporting of crimes that occur on the open ocean.

Take a recent case, when an 11-year-old girl was allegedly groped by a crew member in an elevator aboard the Disney Dream. That incident occurred while the vessel was docked at Port Canaveral, though no law enforcement agencies were notified until the next day.

FLORIDA TODAY’s news partner WKMG-TV Local 6 reported that the girl’s family immediately reported the incident to ship officials. Disney officials neither confirmed nor denied that.

“They sailed a crime scene out of U.S. territory waters without reporting it,” said Jim Walker, a Miami maritime attorney and author of the Cruise Law News blog. “They delayed (reporting the crime) until they sailed the victim, the criminal and the crime scene out of the U.S. jurisdiction.”

The problem, some say, is a law that requires only certain crimes and investigations to be reported to the public. People like Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, say that leaves the actual number of crimes aboard ships mostly unknown.

Disney officials say they notified proper authorities — according to federal laws — of that incident, and records show that Port Canaveral police were notified the day after the alleged assault. Still, the case has put a spotlight on what industry watchdogs’ call delayed reporting of crimes.

Carver said the largely unmonitored industry — which industry rep Cruise Lines International Association predicted would carry an estimated 17.6 million passengers this year — exhibits a “culture of cover up” in not wanting to report crimes.

Carver, whose adult daughter went missing after boarding an Alaskan cruise in 2004, an incident that was not reported to the FBI until five weeks later, founded ICV in 2006. Now, there are hundreds of members in more than 20 countries around the world.

Carver never saw his daughter again.

Reporting quickly

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA), which was passed by Congress in 2010, established various security requirements and crime reporting procedures for cruise lines after acknowledging that the frequency of crime on board is mostly unknown. It required ship owners to contact the nearest FBI office by telephone as soon as possible after an incident, to be followed up by a written report of the alleged crime that also must be noted in a log book available for inspection by any law enforcement agency.

That’s where Walker and Carver allege Disney ran into trouble in August in not reporting the alleged incident until the following day.

“The law says you have to report (crimes) as soon as possible,” Carver said, referencing the Disney incident when he added: “A day or two later is not as soon as possible.”

The act requires the U.S. Coast Guard to report crime statistics, but only for investigations that have been closed. It required lines to publicly report crimes, but Carver said it had the unintended impact of skewing the stats. The switch from reporting alleged incidents to only closed investigations resulted in a large decrease crimes that were reported to the public.

In 2012, the Coast Guard reported 15 investigations on vessels nationwide. Of those, 11 were sexual assaults; crew members were suspected in six of those assaults.

The industry trade group reported an estimated 17.2 million people boarded ships owned by its North American-based member lines in 2011.

The FBI did not meet requests for information about the number of cruise-ship crimes reported to them last year, nor did Bahamian police. Some crimes are investigated by Bahamian authorities because many ships are registered there.

But Port Canaveral police records show there were three sexual assault investigations — two reported by ship security officers, and one by an Arizona police department — conducted in 2012.

Carver, chairman of ICV, which advocates for better cruise-ship crime reporting, says the actual number of incidents is much higher. Together, ICV and Ross Klein, a professor of social work at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, used the Freedom of Information Act to request crime reports received by the FBI from cruise ships for a one-year period up to Sept. 30, 2008.

Their final report after the 2008 analysis says there were 151 reports of unwanted sexual touching or sexual contact in that time period; and 56 of those involved a crew member in some way, either as the aggressor or the victim.

James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston and former consultant to the International Council of Cruise Lines, has testified before congress about cruise ship safety. He said cruises are safe vacation destinations, especially compared with other locations tourists choose, and says crime rates at sea are much lower than on land.

“Despite the fact that there is a high level of alcohol consumption, they have very low rates of violence, and that’s owing to the fact that there’s a large number of security personnel and even security cameras,” Fox said. “… Also the demographics of a cruise population is different than the general population. It tends to be more family population, elderly population. (There’s) not typically gang bangers on a cruise ship.

“It’s not a cross-section of the general population, and that actually is in favor of cruise ships, in terms of safety.”

Rough waters

With the industry recently under fire after several serious problems — notably the Carnival Triumph, which was left dead in the water in deplorable conditions for days after a fire knocked out the main power source — even Congress is scrutinizing the industry, to include crime reporting.

Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller IV, D-West Va., chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, sent letters to three carriers on May 7, demanding they report crime statistics. The letters went to Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International.

Rockefeller and his committee asked for: numbers of reported crimes, such as homicides, serious thefts, sexual assaults and missing persons cases, regardless of whether they were resolved; how many of those incidents involved crew members; and for cruise line policies of reporting such incidents to U.S. authorities.

He gave the cruise lines a deadline, which has since passed. Unless published by the lines themselves, the reports will go to the committee and may become public during a later hearing. No hearings to discuss the findings have been set, a spokesman for the committee said.

Stacey Barchenger, FLORIDA TODAY – USA Today

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