GAO report, victim advocates raise concerns over underreporting of cruise ship crime

When it comes to cruising, people put a lot of time and energy into researching the prices, amenities and destinations. But according to a recent government report, consumers may not be as informed as they should be about the safety and security on these vessels.

Janet Powers recalled a terrifying experience while on a cruise vacation three years ago.

"A man came and grabbed me by the hair and beat my head against the wall until I became unconscious,” she said.

As powerless as she felt in that situation, she felt even more so after immediately reporting the crime to onboard security and then police at the next port of call.

"By the time we were through, having the police explain to me, that they had no jurisdiction, they had already let this man off the ship,” she said.

The FBI is charged with investigating most crimes that happen on the high seas.

“Generally speaking, as a rule of thumb, we would become involved in any sort of crime of violence, murder, assault, sexual assault,” said Patrick Dugan, supervisory special agent of the FBI Baltimore’s Violent Crimes Task Force. “We could also become involved in a theft case."

Dugan’s task force handles cases from cruises sailing out of Baltimore.

"Fortunately around here, we don't get called out all that often,” he said. “Just a few times in the course of any calendar year."

But FBI agents can only look into crimes they’re called to investigate, which didn't’t happen in Powers’ case.

"I mean, if this had happened at a 7-Eleven, this man would have been arrested,” she said. “But because it happened at sea, there's no crime?"

The 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) requires cruise lines that visit U.S. ports to report claims of nine serious crimes, including homicide, sexual assault and assault with serious injury to both the FBI and the Coast Guard.

But only those cases opened and closed by the FBI are required to be publicly reported. They don’t include incidents resolved by security on the ship or crimes against non-U.S. citizens.       

Maritime attorney Jim Walker said the data doesn't’t give a complete picture.

"The data that is required to be reported is only a small fraction of the overall cruise industry,” he said.

The Government Accountability Office’s recent report on cruise ship safety questions whether passengers have access to accurate crime data before booking a cruise.

"If we're not collecting the data and analyzing it, we really don't know what we're working with,” Powers said.

Several major cruise lines are now voluntarily making efforts to improve these reports.

Carnival , Royal Caribbean , Norwegian and Disney post crime numbers online quarterly for passengers to view, but the numbers, it seems, still don’t add up.      

In 2013, in their voluntary reports, these four cruise lines reported a total of 81 crimes nationwide, including 30 rapes, 19 sexual assaults, 16 thefts of $10,000 or more and 13 assaults.

ABC2 investigators also requested data from the FBI on the number of cruise ship crimes agents were called to investigate nationwide last year. The FBI figure is 210.

Maryland Transportation Authority Public Information Officer 1st Sgt. Jonathan Green said the department received no reports of cruise ship crimes last year from the Port of Baltimore.

But data we obtained from the five biggest ports out of Florida show that local police there responded to more than 300 cruise ship crimes in that state alone.

Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, said there are a number of challenges to investigating and ultimately prosecuting crimes that happen at sea.

"You want to evaluate the scene of the crime and often, it's not here, that is, the ship may be out at sea,” he said. “You also want to talk to the witnesses and typically, they're no longer there either, because people get off the ship and they go back home and you need to track them down and find them and sometimes even the crew members have changed."

But one case out of Baltimore that was reported and ultimately led to a guilty plea and jail time was the arrest of former Royal Caribbean crew member Fabian Palmer in 2012. Palmer pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old cruise passenger.

"Palmer had befriended the victim and tried to gain the trust of the victim,” Rosenstein said. “And that makes it particularly insidious, but it also helped us in terms of the investigation because it wasn't a single encounter. There were witnesses, there was even evidence of a note that he had written to the victim."

For the cruise industry as a whole, Powers hopes moving forward, that every serious crime will be given the same consideration, whether it happened on land or at sea – and that potential cruisers know about it.

"What if it was your wife, what if it was your sister? Your mother? Your daughter? This can't go on,” she said.

In a statement, David Peikin, director of public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association said crime on cruise ships is relatively rare, when compared

to the rate of crimes committed on land.

His full statement reads:

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.

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