The FBI’s Loophole Misleads Cruise Ship Crime and Protects Cruise Lines

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

In an article described as the “smoking gun,” author Matthew Harwood of Salon discusses the loophole that the FBI created in the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, which causes crimes on cruise ships to go unreported. Miami maritime attorneys at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. know firsthand that the amount of crimes and rapes that are reported do not accurately represent the amount actually committed aboard cruise ships. As discussed below, this loophole not only creates a misrepresentation to American consumers but it may demonstrate the potentially dangerously close relationship between the FBI and the cruise lines.

In 2010, Congress with the help the International Cruise Victims Association (“ICV”) passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act to increase regulation of the cruise industry. The Act required cruise lines to create policies to protect rape victims. It also required cruise lines to report serious crimes and missing persons to the FBI when they involved a U.S. citizen. The numbers were to be reported quarterly on a website maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. According to ICV vice president, Laurie Dishman, the purpose of the reporting requirement was to give American consumers information to choose among cruise lines based on the crime rate or choose another type of vacation altogether.

Prior to the Act, cruise lines voluntarily provided crime statistics to the FBI and they weren’t made public. For instance, between December 2007 and October 2008 (before the law was in effect), cruise lines voluntarily reported 363 crimes to the FBI. After the law went into effect, however, the numbers were lower. Specifically, between 2010 and the first quarter of 2012, only 54 crimes were reported, including zero in the third quarter of 2011 even though the FBI admitted there were crimes alleged.

Why the sudden decrease? Is it because of increased security? Safer cruise ships? Not exactly. The FBI requested that additional language be added into the Act. They then interpreted that language in a manner that makes cruise ships appear much safer than they actually are.

The language the FBI requested was that the crimes reported would be those “that are no longer under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” According to Salon, lawyers interpreting the language did not think anything of it because crimes would still be reported. The way the FBI interpreted its own language, however, had a much different effect.

According to the FBI’s interpretation, crimes would only be reported to the public after the FBI has opened and closed the case. But the FBI only opens cases of reported crimes aboard cruise ships 10 to 20 percent of the time! What’s more, because the FBI waits until the cases are closed, they don’t release the information until there has been a verdict and sentence and all appeals are exhausted.

As Matthew Harwood noted, this not only leads to a dramatically low crime rate, but it destroys the bill’s original intent to give American consumers timely crime rates to decide what cruise line is the safest or that cruising is just not safe at all.

Is this the way the FBI always reports crime? Not at all. In fact, under the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, the FBI releases crime statistics within the United States based on the number of criminal complaints and reports from local and state law enforcement. The FBI’s division responsible for maintaining the UCR system (Criminal Justice Information Service) admits that reporting only cases that were opened and closed would be a “misrepresentation” of the true crime picture – especially considering that some cases are never solved and/or closed at all.

When you look at the relationship the FBI maintains with the cruise lines, it may explain why the FBI is creating the very loophole that protects cruise lines. Two former FBI executives have actually ended up working for the cruise lines – Royal Caribbean in particular. In addition, every two months, the Cruise Lines International Association (the industry’s trade association), hosts closed meetings with the FBI and the Coast Guard where they serve dinner and “discuss security issues.” While the ICV has requested to attend the meetings, those requests have been ignored.

This story has received a lot of attention from reporters and bloggers, including the LA Times, the Raw Story and Jezebel. The FBI has declined to comment thus far.