Congress Discusses Cruise Ship Crime

March 28, 2007

Should cruise lines be required to report all crimes committed at sea?

The issue was addressed yesterday at a hearing on Capitol Hill by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's maritime subcommittee. It's not so much the rate of onboard crime that lawmakers are concerned with. The real point of contention that was raised at the hearing is the way victims and data are handled.

Currently, cruise ships are not required to report violations of U.S. law outside U.S. waters (12 miles offshore). A memo prepared by the Transportation Committee censured the industry for "spotty" record-keeping on cruise ship crime, noting that the FBI kept data only on open files it is involved in investigating, not all alleged crimes reported. And victims and families testified yesterday to the committee that crimes affecting them have been downplayed by cruise lines watching their own backs.

It was Royal Caribbean's Senior Vice President of Global Security Gary Bald that stepped up to the plate to acknowledge past mistakes in responding to crime victims. One case discussed at the hearing was that of Laurie Dishman, who said she was raped last year on a Mexican Riviera cruise by a Royal Caribbean employee -- then handed a garbage bag and asked to collect evidence from the scene on her own.

"It was our intention and desire to assist her in every way we could," Bald told the panel according again to the AP's report. "I feel we accomplished that in some respects but in others I feel we came up short." The employee in question was ultimately fired for inappropriately socializing with guests and drinking on duty.

Royal Caribbean, embroiled in a media storm after George Allen Smith IV disappeared off Brilliance of the Seas in the Aegean Sea back in 2005, is one line that's taken steps to improve onboard security. In his written testimony presented to the committee, Bald outlined some of these measures, including:

A new digital video surveillance program replaced the old videotape system, and is being enhanced fleetwide with $25 million worth of additional state-of-the-art cameras.

All management and staff involved in serving alcohol onboard now attend ServSafe training on doing so responsibly.

Guests are now required to swipe their SeaPass cards at disembarkation; also, cards issued to those under the legal drinking age of 21 are designed differently to prevent them from purchasing liquor onboard.

A Guest Care Team has been established to assist guests dealing with medical or family emergencies, injuries, or traumatic events; security officers attend continuing education programs to better assist law enforcement agencies.

Other Steps Forward

Cruise ship operators in attendance, including Royal Caribbean and Holland America, announced at the hearing a new voluntary agreement in conjunction with the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard that improves and standardizes crime reporting. Under the new agreement, lines would voluntarily report all violations of U.S. law immediately, even in international waters. The FBI also promised to keep track of all crime reports under the new agreement, not just those pertaining to open cases.

This wasn't good enough for some lawmakers who suggested mandatory, as opposed to voluntary, reporting on the part of the cruise lines. And while the FBI and Coast Guard commended the agreement as a step in the right direction, they also cited complex jurisdictional problems -- for example, U.S. officials are unable to board ships registered to other countries (and most are) once they are outside of U.S. waters.

The issue is spurring feedback on Cruise Critic's message boards. Member cruzegirl posts, "There is crime everywhere. But cruise ships don't seem to have the same accountability or responsibility as cities of taking care of it." Cruizin' Ron VA says, "it doesn't matter if it is one crime or 100. The cruise lines try their best to sweep it under the rug. Also I take issue with the way they handle it after the fact. Should they sit by and do nothing or step up to the plate and help solve the issue?"

"Maybe I'm missing something," ParrotRob writes, "but what exactly is the big 'cover up' everyone is talking about? The theme park industry doesn't publish its crime rates. I can't open my local paper and find out exactly how many people were raped, mugged or killed in hotels last year. I don't think either one of those industries is 'covering' anything 'up.' Just because the numbers aren't readily available doesn't mean they are 'covering up' or even hiding anything."

Members of Congress said legislation may still be needed to guard against crime at sea; another hearing will be held in six months. We'll keep you posted.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor