The moment Janet Powers realized a serious crime was happening on the cruise ship carrying her family is one she remembers vividly.
“A man came and grabbed me by the hair,” Janet Powers said. He “beat my head against the wall until I became unconscious.”
It was March 25, 2011, and Powers and her two children were on their way to Puerto Rico, the next port stop for Carnival Victory cruise ship.
The next thing Powers remembers is a crowd of people around her.
“They packed up all of our belongings and they moved us to another floor, saying it was for our own safety,” she said.
“The cruise ships are really like floating cities,” Powers said. “And in any cities you're going to have good people and you're going to have bad people. So, when you get those people together, something could and most likely will happen.”
A Scripps news investigation found that unlike cities in which residents may call 911 for help, passengers are at the mercy of cruise lines, making it difficult to find out what is happening aboard ships.
Powers is not alone in her experience.
A cruise ship surveillance video obtained by Scripps investigative reporters shows a passenger grabbing a man by the neck, throwing him to the ground and then punching him. It had been taking place as other people on board watch.
In another surveillance video, two women are getting into a hair-pulling fight in a ship’s casino.
And earlier this month, a crew member was arrested for allegedly raping a passenger and trying to throw her over a balcony.
“It's a real problem,” longtime maritime attorney Jim Walker said. “That's why we need to have legislation to require the reporting of crimes and people overboard, with consequences when cruise lines don't meet that legal obligation.”
Last year, 17.2 million people sailed from North America on cruise ships, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. The non-profit cruise industry trade organization estimates more than 11.6 million of those passengers live in the U.S. and Canada.
Under pressure from Congress, four of the largest cruise companies, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Norwegian, recently began posting crime stats online. The stats only include crime allegations related to offenses highlighted in the U.S. Federal Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010.
Click here to see a database of all of the crimes self-reported by the cruise industry in 2013.
In 2013, those four cruise companies reported a total of 78 crimes nationwide. It includes 19 alleged sexual assaults and 29 alleged rapes.
Victim advocates like Walker are skeptical of the numbers.
“The cruise ships are not interested in opening up their investigations and being transparent,” he said.
Through state public information laws, Scripps investigative reporters were able to compile data detailing crimes reported to local authorities from ports across the country.
Data from five of the biggest ports in Florida showed law enforcement had been called to investigate more than 300 crimes since January of last year. That data only includes ships coming in and out of the sunshine state.
(Use the interactive table below, or click here, to see the differences in crimes reported at the local level and those crimes self-reported by the cruise industry.)
Last year the four cruise companies reported 14 total thefts. During that same time period, police in Florida responded to 75 cases of thefts at the five largest reports there. The Scripps investigative reporters learned the cruise companies only report stolen items that are worth more than $10,000, while the local police agencies do not set a dollar-amount cap.
The cruise companies publically report stats on homicide, death, missing U.S. nationals, kidnapping, assault with serious bodily injury, theft over $10,000, rape, sexual assault and firing or tampering with a vessel.
“The head of security assured me that at the next port, this man would be arrested and taken off the ship,” Powers said. “There is no jail on a ship, the man was allowed to roam around freely and do whatever he wanted to do with family members.”
When a crime occurs it can often be confusing for the victims involved to determine to whom to report it.
This was the case for Powers. The Puerto Rican police were brought on board and Powers said the first thing the officers did was tell her they didn’t have jurisdiction to do anything. Since the alleged assault occurred in international waters, the FBI is the organization with jurisdiction.
The authority of the Bureau to investigate crimes and enforce U.S. laws on cruise ships depends on several factors: location of the ship, nationality of the alleged criminal or victim, ownership of the ship, location of port embarkation and debarkation and the country flag the ship is under, according to the FBI.
“I said I want you to call the FBI -- this matters,” Powers said. “If this would’ve happened at a 7/11 this man would’ve been arrested but because it happens at sea there’s no crime?”
The FBI told Powers the facts of the case did not merit prosecution, and according to Powers, the man was never arrested.
“There really is no one to help someone in this situation and that's when I learned how rampant this situation,” she said.
A 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office highlighted “concerns” about cruise ship crime reporting, questioning whether passengers have access to the right information before booking their vacations.
According to the report, “the public may not have the necessary information to make informed decisions about cruise travel.”
The report provided an update on how the cruise industry and federal agencies have implemented 11 of the 15 safety provisions Congress inquired about, including implementing better evacuation training.
One of the provisions still being worked on by the U.S. Coast Guard is developing rules for maintaining video surveillance to better keep track of crimes on board the ships.
Each cruise ship is required to keep a logbook of alleged crimes or disturbances, South Florida detective Richard Neaves said, but the industry is not required to report all of the instances included in the logbook to the public or passengers.
Cruise victim advocates encourage passengers who have been the victim of a crime while vacationing on a cruise ship to report their crimes to local authorities as well as personnel on the cruise ships.
Neaves serves in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. He says only a fraction of crimes get reported to police.
“Their priority when they come into the port is normally to catch their flight to go home,” Neaves said. “They're going to look at this and say, I’m probably not going to get this back, do I really need to deal with this?”
Flags of Convenience
“They all fly what are called ‘flags of convenience,’” Miami maritime attorney Michael Winkelman said.
“Flags of convenience” date all the way back to the 1920s, according to Caitlin E. Burke, an advocate for cruise victims. “Flagging a ship under a foreign flag for the convenience of the cruise line is nothing new, nor is it rare,” Burke wrote in A Qualitative Study of Victimization and Legal Issues Relevant to Cruise Ships.
The “flag of convenience” is determined by which country a ship is registered under. For a ship registered in the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard oversees operations.
Burke said when ships are registered in other countries, U.S. passengers’ rights are “greatly inhibited due to flags of convenience, partly because ticket-passenger contracts are written under the registered country’s law.” Burke sits on the Board of Directors for the International Cruise Victims.
“The dark side there though is that there's a lot of stuff that goes on that people don't necessarily know about,” Winkleman said.
In a statement, the Cruise Line International Association, the largest cruise industry trade association, said crimes on cruise ships are uncommon.
“Although allegations of serious crime on cruise ships are a small fraction of corresponding rates on land, the cruise industry voluntarily discloses allegations of serious crime to the public so consumers can see for themselves that alleged crimes on cruise ships are uncommon.”
CLIA of North America is comprised of 26 cruise lines. Read their full statement below.
Despite his belief that there is more crime happening than passengers are aware, Mike believes vacationing on a cruise ship is still a safe option.
“If you take your common sense with you on board a cruise ship, you're going to be ok,” he said.
For Powers, follow-up on the alleged assault was important because she said this cannot go on.
“What if this was your wife, your sister, your daughter?”
Read the full CLIA statement sent via email from David Peikin, Director of Public Affairs, below:
“We’re pleased that the GAO report concluded that cruise lines are complying with the requirements of the CVSSA, and implementation of the law is progressing as intended. Although allegations of serious crime on cruise ships are a small fraction of corresponding rates on land, the cruise industry voluntarily discloses allegations of serious crime to the public so consumers can see for themselves that alleged crimes on cruise ships are uncommon. This exceeds the requirements under the CVSSA and even the requirements of what the U.S. Coast Guard must report on its Website. No other hospitality, transportation or commercial business to our knowledge discloses such comprehensive data nor provides this level of transparency. This allows consumers to see for themselves the low rate of alleged crimes on cruise ships.
Additionally, the GAO report notes that the low rate of alleged crime on cruise ships as compared with land-based crimes can be explained in part by the fact that passengers are in a set environment, all persons and items brought on board are screened, camera surveillance is ubiquitous, and security personnel are present.”
How we got the story
Scripps news investigative reporters contacted all of the ports across the country to determine which local law enforcement agencies respond to crimes on cruise ships if it is reported locally. The investigators then submitted state public information requests for all records of crimes reported to the agencies since Jan. 1, 2013.
As of publication time, reporters were still waiting to hear back from the New York City Police Department, the Port of Seattle and Port of Houston Police. The City of Norfolk, Va. did not have any records responsive to our request. Law enforcement agencies in the following cities all provided us with information: Los Angeles, Charleston, New Orleans, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Jacksonville and Port Canaveral.