Opinion: Cruise Ship Safety Update

| May 9, 2008

The industry has made real progress in handling and reporting those rare instances of crimes aboard ship.

Since the 2007 congressional hearings on cruise ship crime, a number of new protocols have been proposed for cruise ships. What are they, and will they work?

  • Alaska passed an "Ocean Rangers" law in 2006, putting environmental officers on cruises sailing in state waters. But these officers are charged only with monitoring onboard environmental practices.
  • California state senator Joe Simitian is sponsoring a bill to place "Ocean Rangers" on all cruises sailing from California. They will be certified in marine biology, but also be trained as law-enforcement officers to aid in crime prevention and investigation. A $1-a-day fee added to each cruise fare would pay for the cost of the program, if it passes.
  • In April 2007, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring cruise lines to report onboard crime statistics to the government, presumably to be shared with the public so people can gauge the safety factor of each ship. The bill is headed to the Senate.

Of all this legislation, the Alaska bill makes sense because rangers will monitor what actually happens in Alaskan waters, and the Congressional bill makes sense because Congress can mandate what any ship visiting a U.S. port is required to report.

The problem with the California bill is in defining the role of "Ocean Ranger." There is no problem with having an environmental officer onboard, but he can only monitor what is done within the territorial waters of California -- up to 12 nautical miles from shore.

But the California state senator says the Rangers will also be there to "review relevant records, assist the passenger and crew in reporting and investigating potential criminal activities onboard while in the marine waters of the state (sic)."

Marine biology and law enforcement are two entirely different skills, each requiring an extraordinary amount of training. Furthermore, the state of California has no jurisdiction to arrest or investigate crimes that do not occur within its jurisdiction. The state bill admits as much.

Are These New Bills Necessary? Article III of our Constitution gives jurisdiction over all cases of admiralty and maritime matters to the federal government. In the second Congressional hearing on cruise ship crime in 2007 the FBI was rightfully given official jurisdiction to investigate and bring charges against the perpetrator of a crime on a cruise ship. The California bill would create a jurisdictional conflict between the "Ocean Rangers" and the FBI, and with local authorities when ships are in foreign ports.

In 2007 I interviewed Gary Bald, VP of security for Royal Caribbean. He gave me details on the line's new (at the time) security and crime reporting procedures. The program makes a lot of sense to me and my research tells me the approach at other cruise lines is similar.

The key is implementing fleetwide standardization of procedures in matters of security, including crime-reporting, rape kits and training in how to use them, methods for securing crime scenes on ships, and the coordination all these procedures by a single person located at the line's land-based headquarters.

If a crime occurs on a cruise ship, the victim will be turned over to the designated officer in charge onboard first. That officer will then immediately contact the mainland office's security director who, in turn, will lead the ship personnel through all the steps of the security plan. The goal is to standardize the procedures, and to have an impartial third party who can make sure no one on the ship (crew or passenger) interferes with the process.

Directives from the onshore security officer may include instructions on sealing the crime scene, preserving evidence and how to conduct a legal rape examination. This is only the first response. The idea is to make sure everything about the crime is recorded and preserved in a uniform and timely manner for the proper authorities, presumably the FBI, once they come onboard.

A recent incident on Carnival reveals what lengths a cruise ship will go to when even the possibility of a crime is reported. Below is the statement from Carnival on their response when Steve Manning was reported as missing from an April 2008 cruise on Carnival Victory:

"At around 7 p.m. on April 22nd, Mr. Manning's wife reported to shipboard personnel that her husband was missing and that she had last seen him at around midnight the previous evening. The ship's command immediately initiated search protocols, including repeated announcements over the ship's PA system and a full-scale search of the vessel involving hundreds of shipboard employees and encompassing all guest and crew areas.

As part of this process, all guests were required to return to their cabins and all guest services such as bars, restaurants, gift shops, etc. were shut down.

In the meantime, all of the established actions for such a situation were initiated, including but not limited to sealing and securing any relevant areas of the ship, which in this instance included the Mannings' cabin, collecting statements from various guests and crew, a review of entries and exits to their cabin and also on and off the vessel and prompt communication with U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI.

All of these activities, in addition to others I am not detailing here, transpired in a highly professional, effective and timely manner. It is the role of our trained security professionals and senior officers to ensure that these activities are conducted and then retain all resulting information and potential evidence in a secured manner until law enforcement investigators arrive. This is precisely what transpired and all results were provided to the FBI, which is the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction. Any further information regarding their investigation and resulting conclusions will need to be obtained from them.

In terms of Mrs. Manning, she received extensive, ongoing information and personalized care from senior shipboard staff, she was provided complimentary phone calls from the ship and complimentary medical care. She was given a choice of staying on board or disembarking and flying home. She chose to disembark in Grand Cayman.

Carnival personnel made multiple phone calls to facilitate notifications to other family members, as well, and offer assistance. Carnival provided a CareTeam family escort to meet Mrs. Manning's daughter in Chicago and fly with her daughter to Grand Cayman so that the daughter and Mrs. Manning could travel home together. The family escort flew with them back to Chicago and Carnival paid for all travel arrangements.

Certain factors that Mrs. Manning may have been upset about, such as not being allowed to return to her original cabin, not being allowed to move freely about the ship, and not being allowed to keep her cell phone, were necessary directives from the FBI.

The situation was handled with the utmost professionalism, thoroughness and compassion. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Manning family during this very difficult time.

-- Jennifer de la Cruz Director of Public Relations/Company Spokesperson Carnival Cruise Lines

This description of Carnival's response to a missing person report shows that cruise lines are willing and prepared to go beyond the call of duty in aiding the victims and preserving the scene of a possible crime.

The FBI was contacted immediately for advice on how to secure the crime scene and the people involved. Such efforts by Carnival are not those of a cruise line engaged in a scheme to "cover up" a crime. Even though the wife did not report her husband missing for 19 hours, the cruise ship conducted a full-scale investigation that included every protocol except turning the ship around to conduct a search at sea. In this case it was too late for that (it would have required 19 hours just to get to the same spot), but sea searches are standard procedure whenever a person is reported as missing in a more timely manner.

Why the Continuing Concern Over Crime on Cruise Ships? Even though the crime rate on ships is miniscule compared to any major city, crime has happened on ships. In certain well-publicized past cases, it was very frustrating for the victims to get a resolution. Largely because of these now famous cases, some people (especially the victims) claim the cruise lines are incapable of managing their own security. Admittedly, in a few cases they could have done much better.

Last week, I received a phone call from one of them -- Kendall Carver, who runs International Cruise Victims (ICV at http://www.internationalcruisevictims.org/). His 40-year-old daughter Merrian disappeared from a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise in 2004. ICV provides a venue for anyone who feels he or she has been the victim of a crime on a cruise ship. I disagree with the name of his organization -- saying that people victimized by crime on ships are somehow "cruise victims" -- but I respect Kendall's dedication to bringing his cause to light. He is the foremost proponent for change in the ways cruise lines handle cases of crime. Kendall was at the congressional hearings and the one for the new bill in California, along with the same few "cruise victims" we see at every hearing.

Kendall Carver and I live within 10 minutes of each other in Phoenix. When he called and invited me to lunch, I was wary of what could be an awkward situation. We are, admittedly, on opposite sides in our regard for how crimes on cruise ships are handled. Although I disagree with his approach, I share his desire for more successful prosecution of the [few] criminals who commit crimes on a cruise ship. So I accepted his invitation.

What are the Real Issues? There is no local law enforcement authority on a ship at sea. A few years ago, investigations and arrests were the authority of the ship's officers on an adhoc basis. Today, from the moment a crime is reported a designated ship's security officer coordinates the investigations in concert with shoreside management.

If you believe the cruise industry bashers, you might think ships are crewed by gypsies, and parole boards release convicts directly to cruise vacations. I have yet to see any of the industry critics acknowlege the accomplishments and progress made by the cruise industry in the last two years. The "opposition" has become so adversarial, it seems it will never be satisfied until independent policemen are assigned to work on cruise ships, like the air marshals on U.S. commercial flights -- something that will probably never happen due to the lack of jurisdiction by the United States over cruise ships.

That is the system which has evolved over the centuries of passenger vessels at sea, which the opposition can't change, so they take out their frustration with a campaign of defamation towards the cruise lines. This bashing has been surprisingly effective with a media all-too-eager to report anything hinting of scandal, right or wrong. Because of this publicity crusade, the uniformed public now believes that any unprosecuted cruise-related crime is because of a "vast cruise line cover-up conspiracy." The truth is, the cooperative actions of the cruise lines, as in the Carnival case above, all suggest exactly the opposite.

My Meeting with Kendall Carver Kendall is a retired professor who lives in a very nice part of Phoenix; his house is full of treasures from his world travels. He is an accomplished photographer who sells his work on posters and greeting cards.

Life-size photographs of his family hang on the walls -- blown up to the point where you feel you are in the same room with his daughters, including Merrian. As he spoke about her case, it became obvious that he still lives with this tragedy daily, and cannot speak about it unemotionally. He told me his wife still believes Merrian is alive.

Kendall Carver admits that the disappearance of his daughter was likely not a crime, because many attributes of the case point to suicide. But he was most troubled by the cruise line's lack of cooperation in providing details of the incident. According to Kendall, he spent some $75,000 in lawyer's fees just to find out what the cruise line knew about his daughter's time aboard the ship.

During our lunch, Kendall told me some of the same things I have heard him say in public or seen in his quotes. Professor Ross Klein of Canada presented what I believe are very inaccurate statistics on cruise ship crime in the first congressional hearing of 2006. Klein concluded a person is "safer on land" than on a cruise ship. Making matters worse, Kendall Carver has publicly aggravated Klein's own skewed statistic in interviews, repeating it as "a person is safer in any major city in America than on a cruise ship."

Kendall told me the same thing during our lunch. I felt it necessary to point out the discrepancy between what he commonly states and what Ross Klein actually said. I also made it clear that I don't agree with Klein's conclusions. Klein presented a statistic for the number of sexual assaults on a cruise ship per 100,000, and said it shows one is safer on land. My own research shows that even using Klein's statistic, sexual assault is actually higher in Klein's own home town, sedate Newfoundland, one of the statistically safest cities in Canada.

The cruise industry presented its own statistical interpretation at that congressional meeting, but the industry's expert was the same man who compiles crime statistics for the U.S. government. His conclusion is that you are far safer on a cruise ship than almost anywhere in the world, especially any major cities.

When I mentioned this to Kendall he was unaffected; he simply moved on to his next thought. For a college professor he is surprisingly uninterested in discussing theory. Rather, he is an evangelist against an unmitigated evil, as he perceives it. The sincerity of his conviction makes him highly believable to the unknowing, but I am not one of them. His conviction is based on what he wants to believe, and he is not one to be dissuaded by facts.

Kendall directed me to the 10-point plan for cruise ship safety on his ICV web site. The plan and my responses to it (in red) are below.

The ICV Cruise Safety Plan Here are his 10 proposals from the ICV web site, with my comments in red:

1. An International police force should be established at the expense of the cruise lines, connected to Interpol or another international police organization. Interpol is not a true police organization, as it has no arrest powers itself. In fact there are no "international police" organizations and for a myriad of reasons, probably never will be.

2. U.S. Marshals to be present on all cruise ships. This would be prohibitively expensive and would probably violate the laws of other nations the vessel may visit.

3. When a crime is not reported to the appropriate authorities by the cruise lines, and in a timely manner, substantial fines should be imposed. Crimes are already being reported voluntarily to the FBI; I see no reason to impose substantial fines.

4. All crimes must be made public -- not voluntarily, but mandatory. (See above)

5. Increase the height of various places on the outside of each ship, making it difficult for passengers to go overboard: Higher glass walls -- Other design changes. I sincerely doubt the vast majority of passengers would want this; cruise ship railings are already higher than required by land-based building standards. In New York City, window rail guards are only required in homes with children under 10 and the legal height is 36 inches. I have never heard of a child falling off of a cruise ship. The last time I measured a cruise ship railing it was 54 inches.

6. Upgrade existing surveillance systems and increase the number of cameras: Strategically place cameras in all areas, where passengers may frequent, i.e. decks, outside railings, non-glass elevators, etc. Monitor system and cameras 24/7, ensure and install proper lighting for image quality, and require daily inspections and monitoring to ensure proper functionality. I agree with the usefulness of a full range of camera systems, but even schools, banks and downtown areas with video-surveillance cannot afford live 24-hour monitoring of every camera. Besides that, it smacks of Big Brother -- which may be OK in the area adjacent to the United Nations buildings in New York City, but not on a vacation passenger vessel.

7. Bracelets to be issued just prior to boarding the ship:

  • Designed to include microchips
  • Worn by passengers throughout the entire cruise (onshore & offshore)
  • Bearing the name of the ship and identifying each passenger; thus, if an individual is missing, falls overboard, etc., their location will be detected (similar to those on house arrest, microchips for our dogs, our children, and our vehicles). Undoubtedly most people would consider that a huge invasion of privacy, but such a process could be implemented if made voluntary. Anyone who believes this is a good idea could start a business to add such systems to cruise ships for people who want such devices for themselves or their children.

8. When a passenger is reported missing/overboard, the ship must stop immediately and complete a search. This policy is already in place. There are dozens of cases where ships turned around to conduct sea searches.

  • Rail alarms to go off if an individual should go overboard. I would agree to this.
  • Station 24/7 lifeguards on each side of the ship's decks. They already have cameras in place, but it is not a bad idea.
  • Require a full accounting of the number of passengers who board vs. exit. All cruise ships already track all passengers with the sea-pass magnetic card system, but a ship cannot know if a person decides to stay in a port. I have personally hired a car and met my ship two days later when in Europe. Attendance on the ship is not mandatory, and a person may choose not to return to a cruise ship at any time without the means to notify the ship of his plans.

9. Since the cruise lines select and promote various excursions, they should be held accountable for the safety of their passengers, who purchase such excursions through them. This is already done to a degree, but the cruise lines cannot control operators who violate the cruise line rules without the knowledge of the cruise lines. There is no way to monitor every excursion operator on every cruise. Such requirements are not made of any other tour.

10. Weather conditions should be verified prior to allowing passengers to purchase excursions, such as sightseeing tours, scuba diving adventures, water-skiing etc. The cruise lines generally allow for cancellation within 24 hours and weather reports for the next day are not hard to get on cruise ships.

What the Opposition Won't Acknowledge How realistic is it to campaign for such strict supervision and surveillance of all passengers on every cruise? Is it something that even a minority of passengers would really want especially when you factor in the inevitable added cost?

Steps have already been taken to improve safety on ships in the last two years -- a subject that has been largely ignored in the media. When something bad happens, there are procedures in place to handle the problem. I think that is clearly shown in the Carnival response above.

I asked Kendall if he has seen any changes in the cruise lines' approach to crime in the last two years, and he said emphatically that nothing had changed at all. During the 2007 follow-up congressional hearings, the cruise lines agreed to work with the ICV on establishing new standards for crime reporting and investigation, and I heard that meetings had taken place, so I asked him if they had. Kendall told me Royal Caribbean had invited ICV to come to Miami as their guests and discuss safety at sea. He said when they arrived, he was shocked to see the only people invited to the meeting were the cruise line and the ICV. Who else was supposed to be there, I asked him? In reply, he simply repeated the story with the same ending.

I asked him if the cruise line presented their new "standardization of procedures" security policy at the meeting. He said they had, but that it meant nothing to him -- it was just talk, and in his view the cruise lines still refuse to cooperate despite the order by Congress. "Obviously, nothing the cruise lines say means anything if there isn't any oversight," he said.

"Doesn't the fact that the cruise lines are now clearly reporting all crimes to the FBI mean anything? Is an FBI investigation not enough oversight for you?" I asked. He replied that he wouldn't be satisfied until they reported every possible incident of crime that ever occured on their ships to the public.

This was the point when I realized that no matter how much compassion I felt, my feelings conflicted with reality. Is it logical to make the cruise lines responsible for preventing every possible mishap on their ships? I say mishap because in many reported cases the investigation does not show any evidence of foul play.

That Kendall is still grieving for his daughter is painfully clear when you speak with him. Equally clear is his anger at the cruise line she was on when it happened. I understand they handled him badly when he was trying to get more details. They did not cooperate and it cost him a lot of money to get the answers he wanted. But why condemn an entire indystry for the actions of a few people?

A filmmaker documented 19 jumps from the Golden Gate bridge in one year. What would be more realistic or helpful, blaming the bridge or offering advice on how to deal with thoughts of suicide? How about grief counseling for surviving family members who have lost loved ones? Is it helpful to survivors to fill them with rage against the bridge itself?

Where is this Controversy Headed? The common perception in the U.S. is that the Mexican police force is corrupt and thousands of Americans are victimized in Mexico every year; but does it make sense to say "We cannot trust the Mexicans to police themselves! We need "Turista Marshalls?"

After meeting with Kendall Carver, I believe he is intractibly committed to a plan is impossible to implement and would create a bureaucratic sinkhole causing more problems than it solves. I think the cruise industry and its opponents have reached an impasse. No matter what actions the cruise industry takes the ICV will never see it as enough.

It is true there is no independent legal authority on a cruise ship - and chances are there never will be. Cruise ships are sovereign nations subject to international admiralty laws overseen by our federal government. Cruise ships have agreed to, and are working the system set forth by congress to make the FBI the legal authority of jurisdiction.

It is time to give the cruise lines credit for what they are doing right. Instead, we still have allegations that the cruise lines are "lawless" and beyond trust.

Oprah made Royal Caribbean's Adam Goldstein apologize to the widow of George Smith on her TV show for the "horrible way that Royal Caribbean treated her" when her husband disappeared from Brilliance of the Seas in Europe. Yet the newlywed bride reportedly had kicked her husband in the crotch on their honeymoon night and disappeared with another man. She was allegedly passed out drunk in a hallway at the same time her husband of less than 24 hours was meeting his final fate.

If you want someone to fully cooperate with society, to aid the good and oppose the bad, you encourage their efforts and reward them for doing the right thing. Today, every incident turns into an attack on the industry, and that only makes the relationship between the cruise lines and the uninformed media and public needlessly adversarial in rhetoric and tone.

Congress -- Stop Legislating and Start Enforcing The cruise lines now report all crimes voluntarily to the FBI. In the last few months four news stories have crossed my desk about alleged crimes on cruise ships, and each one of them said the FBI is currently investigating.

I only know of the FBI bringing charges in one of them. I do not know whether the other cases were dropped, are still being investigated, or if charges were just not reported. But the cruise lines are cooperating by immediately reporting these crimes, and the FBI is said to be following up. Sometimes we never hear of the resolution, for any number of possible reasons. I personally would like to see more news reports like the one below:

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) -- Three men from El Salvador face assault charges after they allegedly forced a teenage couple to have sex in front of them on board a cruise ship.

The suspects were arrested when their ship arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands on March 20, and they are being held there without bail.

An FBI affidavit says the three men, all of them in their 20s, lured the couple into a cabin, got them drunk and forced them to have sex while they took pictures.

One of them also allegedly tried to force the 16-year-old girl into the cabin's bathroom.

The assault allegedly occurred March 16 as the cruise ship, the Norwegian Dawn, was at sea.

This article shows that the FBI can investigate a crime that happens at sea and bring charges. In another case this year, it was reported that the cruise line used a rape examination kit onboard and report to the FBI that the result was positive. But I have heard nothing further about this case.

When we start reading about the FBI successfully prosecuting the cases coming from cruise ships, I believe we will have finally accomplished our goal.

The cruise lines are holding up their end of the bargain. Never have they said they want "non-interference" by the U.S. government when it comes to crime. They are cooperating because they want resolutions to these crimes, as we all do. What possible good does it do the cruise industry to have a reputation as a haven for crime?

More on the California Ocean Rangers Bill You can read the bill here:

Or, you can watch a video interview with the senator introducing the bill by clicking here:

As far as the new California bill is concerned -- because the roles, responsibilities and rights of the California Ocean Ranger are not yet defined, I feel the plan isn't ready. My guess is it will be challenged in courts due to jurisdictional issues.

Summing Up The cruise lines have already adopted measures to report, investigate and cooperate with the FBI in all crimes concerning U.S. citizens on cruise ships. The important thing for Congress to do now is to make sure the FBI follows up on what is reported. This will restore the image cruise ships deserve as safe havens, and when the very rare crime does occur there will be more closure for the victim.

Let the industry get back to focusing on the best things about a cruise vacation. Fighting public relations battles is just diverting the cruise lines from what they do best - providing high-value vacations on safe, state-of-the-art passenger vessels.

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