Local 2 investigates crime on cruise ships

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Nearly 11.2 million people embarked on cruises from North American ports in 2011, and federal law makes it impossible for the public to gain access to information about crimes committed at sea.

"We should have crimes reported on cruise ships the same way they're reported in the United States," Ken Carver said.

Carver is the founder of the International Cruise Victims Association. His daughter went missing from an Alaskan cruise in 2004, and he said the cruise line did not investigate her disappearance.

"In fact, there was video when they said there was no video," Carver said.

It is still not exactly clear what happened to 40-year-old Merrian Carver.

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 was supposed to standardize crime reporting on cruise ships. It has, but the law also contains a section which allows federal investigators to withhold information about cruise ship crimes until a case is investigated and closed.

The FBI has jurisdiction in the vast majority of alleged crimes at sea when ships leave and return to American ports.

But the wording of the law means crimes the FBI chooses not to investigate, or cases that remain open are not counted in publically released cruise ship crime statistics. That results in artificially low crime statistics.

Local 2 Investigates obtained the FBI's crime reporting figures for 2011. A scant 16 cases were included in the federal statistics. That means, statistically, with 11.2 million cruising from North American ports last year, the crime rate on cruise ships leaving American ports is nearly zero.

Local 2 Investigates discovered the Port of Galveston police department alone reported 15 cruise ship crimes during that same period. That number represents criminal cases opened just in and around Galveston.

The Port of Galveston would not release detailed crime statistics to Local 2 Investigates. That decision is being appealed with the Texas Attorney General's office.

A woman who claims she was raped on a cruise ship by a member of the crew said she doesn't trust the statistics, the cruise lines or federal investigators.

"The FBI pretty much told me there is not enough evidence, just forget about it and go on with your life," she said.

The 56-year old Texas woman said she had met the waiter who raped her while on a previous cruise. And, in August 2008, he entered her room, assaulted her and threatened her to keep quiet. She initially reported the crime to the cruise line several months later.

"Nobody helped me at all. Nobody," she said.

The woman claims the FBI never contacted her for an interview or account of the evidence. She later called the agency to learn the case had been closed.

Carver said true and accurate crime data needs to be available and released to the public. He said it is the cornerstone of accountability and safety for millions of Americans who chose to cruise each year.

The Cruise Lines International Association, the world's largest cruise association, told Local 2 Investigates, it does not believe there is a safety issue.

In a letter to Local 2 investigator Joel Eisenbaum, the Cruise Lines International Association said cruise lines comply with federal and international laws, report all crimes on board to the appropriate agencies and that crime statistics for cruises are low because cruise ships are safe.

Here is the full text of the correspondence:

Local 2 Investigates: "Is there leeway for cruise ships to use discretion in which crimes are reported to government authorities?"

CLIA: "There is no leeway whatsoever in whether a cruise line must comply with the legal crime reporting requirements. While the incidents of serious crimes on board cruise ships is extremely low, and is lower than similar land based venues, since 1996 every alleged or suspected felony on a voyage to or from the US involving an American must be reported by federal regulation to the US Coast Guard and FBI, regardless of the ship's flag or itinerary.(Title 33 CFR Part 120.) This reporting extends to incidents on foreign ships on the high seas or even in foreign waters. The Coast Guard has testified before Congress that cruise lines do report in compliance with this requirement. In 2010 the law was expanded to require reporting of missing persons or suspicious deaths on the same voyages, as part of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA). The CVSSA stiffened fines for failure to report the most serious incidents, and also requires each line to maintain a Crime Log documenting every alleged theft of items valued over $1000; and all other alleged crime on every vessel sailing to or from the U.S. There are civil fines and criminal penalties for non-compliance with any of these requirements; including denial of entry into and/or clearance to sail from a US port."

Local 2 Investigates: "What percentage of crimes reported by passengers are forwarded to a government agencies (local / federal)?"

CLIA: "As far as we are aware, one-hundred percent of all alleged or suspected felonies are reported to the appropriate government agencies as required by law. The Coast Guard has previously testified before Congress that no unreported crimes have ever been brought to their attention.  In addition to the required reporting on voyages to and/or from the U.S., many flag states require ships registered in that nation to file a report of the incident, as do other port states visited by the ship during the voyage.  Finally, CLIA has entered an Agreement with the FBI and Coast Guard that extends to reporting on voyages outside the U.S. Some incidents have been reported directly by the involved individuals or witnesses, in addition to the report by the cruise line, which is a prerogative held by every victim of every crime.  The CVSSA specifically requires free, confidential access to telephones, computers and contact information for the U.S. and local law enforcement personnel in each port. If any crimes that must be reported were not, those involved would surely make their allegations  known in some other way.  For this reason there is no basis whatsoever to suspect, let alone believe, that any serious crimes go unreported."

Local 2 Investigates: "Many of the alleged crimes on cruise ships are perpetrated by employees of the cruise lines... what is the procedure for background checking employees... is there an industry standard?"

CLIA: "Criminal background checks are a requirement for all crewmembers and these are provided either directly by the crewmember from their local police department or via third parties.  This is in addition to the reviews undertaken by the US Government in connection with issuing C1D Visas. Every time a crewmember enters the US they are vetted by CBP just like everyone who enters the country."

Local 2 Investigates: "Does your organization believe the cruise vessel security act protects passengers?"

CLIA: "CLIA members actively supported passage and enactment of the CVSSA and is a strong believer in the benefits it provides passengers and crew. However, CLIA does not rely upon the CVSSA or other laws alone to establish and foster an appropriate crime reporting program and response protocol.  For example, in 2007 CLIA entered into a formal agreement on behalf of all its member lines with the FBI and Coast Guard that goes beyond the legal requirements of 33 CFR Part 120 and the CVSSA. The agreement covers serious incidents involving Americans on all voyages, not just those to or from the U.S.  This reporting aspect helps ensure that the FBI is involved immediately in any serious incident worldwide when an American is involved. No traveler in any other context has this sort of protection.  When Americans travel abroad by any other mode, no matter what the length or purpose of the trip, they are not protected by any comparable reporting laws.  There are no laws that require the reporting of such incidents on planes, trains---or even when patrons visit hotels, resorts, theme parks and entertainment complexes in the U.S. or abroad.  This strict, multi-level reporting regime on cruise ships ensures that it continues to be one of the safest vacation options available."

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