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Law shields industry on cruise-ship crime information

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PHOENIX — Ever since Kendall Carver's daughter mysteriously disappeared on an Alaskan cruise in 2004, he has dedicated his life to holding the cruise-line industry more accountable for passenger safety.

The retired Phoenix businessman believed he succeeded in 2010 with the passage of federal legislation that was supposed to reveal the full picture of the deaths, sexual assaults, thefts, missing persons and other crimes reported on cruise ships. ,

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who sponsored the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, promised the bill would provide greater transparency about crimes on passenger ships operating out of U.S. ports.

However, unknown to Carver and other supporters, the bill was changed shortly before it passed to provide less, not more, information about cruise-ship crime.

Kerry's own office was responsible for altering the bill without alerting other stakeholders about the changes. Kerry's press secretary acknowledged for the first time publicly last month that the bill was changed to hold back information about cases at the request of the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard.

The agencies "feared that reporting on pending cases could impact ongoing investigations and endanger lives and efforts to bring criminals to justice," press secretary Whitney Smith said.

Carver, who helped spearhead the legislation, said he feels betrayed.

"The bill is being sabotaged. The FBI is using the regulation to gut the intent of the bill," he said. "The FBI and the Coast Guard, the very people who should be looking out for United States citizens, have watered this thing down."

The new act requires cruise lines to report all serious crimes aboard ships to the FBI. Originally, it required the Coast Guard to maintain a public database of all serious crimes on cruise ships. Language added before its passage altered the bill so that only crimes "no longer under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation" were reported in the public database.

The upshot: The public is not allowed to see reports of all alleged crimes aboard ships. Where the FBI once publicly reported more than 400 crimes a year, only six crimes on ships in the past nine months have been listed on the public database. And cases not investigated by the FBI — for example, allegations handled by a ship's security staff — never will be reported in the database under the new law.

Now, Carver and other cruise-safety experts say the industry is using the lack of crime reports to suggest that ocean liners are safer than they have ever been.

Carver and supporters of the legislation had no idea it had been changed until last year, when the first crime reports were posted. They spent months trying to determine how and why the wording in the bill was altered.

Matsui, in an April television interview, said her office was investigating how the language made it into the bill. She accused the FBI of misinterpreting the bill and said withholding crime statistics was counter to the law's intent.

The FBI and the Coast Guard would not comment on the changes in the bill or respond to questions about the crime-reporting statistics.

"We are not at liberty to discuss any information we may have fed into the legislative review process," FBI spokeswoman Denise Ballew said in an e-mail Friday.

Kerry's office did not elaborate on what evidence, if any, the FBI used to determine that releasing crime statistics on cruise ships would affect investigations.

However, both congressional offices say they plan to correct problems in the original bill.

"It's hardly the last word on the subject or the last effort needed to correct problems Mr. Carver and others identified," Smith said.

Safer than land?

More than 16 million people took cruise vacations worldwide in 2011.

The cruise industry, which supports the law as written, for years has maintained that cruises are one of the safest ways to travel, and that a person is far more likely to be a victim of crime at home than aboard a ship.

Crime statistics tell a different story, according to Ross Klein, a professor of sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

"It is not safer than being on land. Passengers need to know that they are at risk," said Klein, who has written four books on cruise safety and testified at U.S. congressional hearings on oversight of the cruise industry.

Klein said that research based on crime reports from the FBI in 2007-08 showed that a person was more than 50 percent more likely to be assaulted on one popular cruise line than on land in Canada.

And Klein said that at a minimum, 18 percent of all crime incidents on ships involve minors. "You shouldn't be letting your child run around thinking that it is perfectly safe," he said.

Before the bill passed, cruise ships were self-regulating and not required under U.S. law to report crimes that took place in international waters.

Ships in national waters, which extend 12 miles from land, were required to report crimes to the FBI. Most cruise lines, however, voluntarily provided the FBI with the crime data.

The new law mandates that all cruise lines operating out of U.S. ports keep a log of reported crimes and provide them to the FBI.

But the public does not get to see what crimes are reported to the FBI or even all of the cases opened by the FBI.

On a website updated quarterly by the Coast Guard, only cases closed by the FBI are made public. The total number of closed cases reported on the website last year was 16. Six have been reported in the past nine months.

Critics say, at best, that represents 20 percent of crimes reported on cruises.

"The FBI is not including all alleged crimes, but only those that they open a file on, minus those under investigation. They only open a file on 10 to 20 percent of alleged crimes," International Cruise Victims Association President Jamie Barnett wrote in a February complaint letter to the FBI.

David Peikin, spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association, which is made up of 26 cruise lines operating in North America, said the industry supported the legislation and "the stringent safeguards it provides for passengers and crew."

Peikin said the language added to the bill over crime reporting did not come from the cruise-line industry.

He said critics are distorting issues surrounding crime-reporting requirements and added that the industry is following the rules on crime reporting.

"Any controversy … has been created by a small minority of vocal, biased industry critics who lack objectivity as it pertains to the cruise industry and the crime reporting elements of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act," Peikin said in an email statement.

Industry connections

News that changes in the bill were requested by the FBI and the Coast Guard raises questions about the cruise industry's influence over law enforcement, according to critics.

Critics also express concern that several of the bill's provisions have been only partly adopted or in some cases not at all.

Over the past two years, Carver and Barnett have complained of perceived conflicts of interest, including quarterly meetings hosted by the Cruise Lines Industry Association attended by members of the FBI and the Coast Guard. They note that former high-ranking FBI agents and Coast Guard members now work for the cruise-line industry.

In a March email to the FBI, Carver and Barnett said government officials should not be attending meetings hosted by industries they are supposed to regulate.

"We feel it then becomes difficult for the agencies to maintain any sort of objectivity," they wrote.

Peikin denies the meetings pose any kind of conflict and describes them as necessary for sharing security information and to coordinate with law enforcement.

He pointed out that thousands of companies tap former law-enforcement officers to provide in-house security because of their training and background.

"To suggest that distinguished military veterans and former federal law-enforcement officials — as well as current members of federal law enforcement — are compromised in their ethics is offensive," he said. "It is also another example of the outlandish and unsupported allegations that are made by the industry critics."

Starting-point legislation

When Kerry and Matsui introduced the legislation, they said it would help put an end to a cycle of crime aboard passenger vessels and promised the bill would provide greater transparency of the cruise industry.

"The tragic loss of Ken Carver's daughter Merrian should serve as a reminder that security and crime-reporting regulations need to be tightened," Kerry said in 2008. "If U.S. passengers are at risk, then U.S. law should hold the industry accountable for their safety."

Now the two lawmakers say the bill was not intended to be a comprehensive measure but rather a starting point for cruise-line accountability and passenger safety. Both said last month that they are pushing for stronger legislation.

Carver, who said he is disappointed by the legislative changes, does not hold the lawmakers responsible. Carver said Kerry's office contacted him last month and took responsibility for changing the bill.

"They were hoodwinked," Carver said. "I think they are all embarrassed. I think they were surprised when they found out."

Learning that Kerry's office was responsible for the language changes in the bill was shocking, he said. Both lawmakers and their staffs had previously expressed outrage over the changes.

Neither Kerry nor Matsui would address questions about when they learned Kerry's office was responsible for the legislative changes.

Kerry and Matsui said last month that they are working on strengthening the crime-reporting requirements and plan to correct problems in the original bill. Kerry's office pointed to new legislation being sought through the Senate Commerce Committee.

"Like all legislation, we need to remain constantly vigilant that the intent of the law does not get unintentionally circumvented through its implementation," Matsui said.

Source: USA Today

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