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New law beefs up cruise safety

FORT LAUDERDALE — Crime on cruise ships is rare, considering 10 million North Americans sailed last year.

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But some crime victims believe that justice also is rare — due to overlapping investigative powers, difficulty obtaining evidence and witnesses, and a lack of sworn officers aboard ships.

Some of that could soon change.

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, aimed at strengthening safety and reporting standards, requires the cruise industry to install video surveillance systems in common areas, as well as door viewers and security latches on cabin doors.

Each ship must carry equipment and materials to perform sexual assault medical exams and to collect forensic evidence. Ships also need to have drugs to prevent sexually transmitted diseases after an assault.

Another provision requires cruise ships to log and report all deaths, missing persons, alleged crimes and complaints involving some thefts, sexual attacks and assaults involving U.S. citizens.

Those records will be available to the FBI and the Coast Guard electronically and to all law enforcement officers upon request. The Homeland Security Department will make the crime statistics available to the public.

Cruise lines say they follow a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to crime on their vessels, and safety is their No. 1 priority.

The Sun Sentinel analyzed hundreds of incidents that the cruise lines sent to the FBI starting in 2007, after pressure from Congress and cruise passenger advocates led to a voluntary reporting agreement. Cruise lines serving U.S. ports said they would voluntarily report serious crimes, which the FBI defined as homicides, suspicious deaths, sexual matters, assaults, kidnapping, terrorism and theft of items worth more than $10,000.

Despite the 2007 agreement, passenger advocates and Congress continued to press for increased regulation because the hodgepodge of rules was inadequate for many victims.

The newspaper's analysis of 363 incidents voluntarily reported by cruise lines to the FBI from December 2007 through October 2008 shows:

• The FBI rarely launched full-fledged investigations, saying there wasn't enough evidence, the allegations weren't serious enough or the agency wasn't authorized to act.

• Florida police agencies have authority to investigate crimes at sea, but few do, saying the crimes are outside their jurisdiction and often victims don't cooperate.

• Ship security officers lack the power to arrest and the tools to investigate when most U.S. law enforcement agencies would.

• In at least 84 situations, cruise lines and ship captains responded to complaints on their own. The worst punishment was kicking off alleged offenders at the next port. In other cases, passengers were warned or had their alcohol privileges yanked.

Nearly five years ago, a few people who had lost members of their family on cruise ships formed the International Cruise Victims Association and quickly began advocating for increased regulation on the cruise industry. The group laid the groundwork for many provisions included in the new cruise law.

The issue of crime aboard cruise ships came under the national spotlight in 2005, when passenger George A. Smith IV disappeared during his Mediterranean honeymoon cruise headed to Turkey, and blood was found below his cabin balcony. Smith's disappearance prompted a congressional hearing later that year and others followed.

New law beefs up cruise safety 08/08/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 8, 2010 11:11pm]

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