Will Newly Released Cruise Crime Data Lead to Improved Passenger Safety?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver The recent disclosure of cruise crime data by four major cruise lines following efforts by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Chairman of the U.S. Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, to push for greater transparency in crime data reporting has raised many questions regarding the tactics cruise companies are employing to reduce the number of criminal incidents onboard their vessels and the overall safety of cruise passengers.

During Senate hearing on cruise crime last week, Rockefeller revealed that there is a huge discrepancy between the number of crimes cruise lines report to the FBI and other maritime authorities and those reported to the public. The Senator then introduced a new legislation, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2013, intended at reducing the gap in crime reporting. As it stands, information concerning all alleged crimes are not required to be reported under the Cruise Line Safety and Security Act as interpreted by the US Coast Guard.  Under the Coast Guard’s current interpretation of the Cruise Line Safety and Security Act, crimes that are still under investigation and those that are alleged but not confirmed are not required to be reported. Rockefeller’s legislation would fix this. The act would require all cruise ship crimes – alleged and solved – to be reported publicly so consumers can have an accurate account of what’s really going happening on the high seas.  It also puts the burden of reporting on the cruise lines – not the US Coast Guard.

But will the legislation really make a difference? Will the public really get an “accurate” account of cruise crime rates? Most likely not.

Before this data was released, our maritime law firm already knew that cruise lines underreport crimes, not just to the public, but to the FBI itself. No matter what laws are enacted or what maritime regulations are imposed, cruise lines tend to find loopholes around them.  The cruise passenger ticket contract itself limits liability for a cruise line when an accident or crime occurs onboard a vessel and because of the fact that lines register their ships in foreign ports, they are able to evade the much stricter U.S. maritime statutes by diverting all accident and crime investigations to the government whose flag they fly.

The cruise industry has been known to hide a criminal occurrence when it happens, especially if the offender is a crew member.  Cruise lines have purposefully waited until they were out of U.S. jurisdiction to report crimes and have waited until they were out in “safe” waters to avoid having their crew members get charged with a crime. Not only does revealing a crime affect the cruise line in terms of popularity and revenue, but if the culprit is a crew member, then the line has the potential to be held accountable for a lot more than just failing to provide a safe environment. This is especially true for cruise ship sexual assault crimes.

Sexual assault is the number one crime in the cruise industry, with 34 percent of victims being children. It is also one of the most underreported crimes in the cruise industry.

Over the years, there have been several victims who have come forward to seek help for their assaults, but there have been hundreds who have been either too embarrassed to come forward or who were threatened by their offenders to keep quiet. Then there are victims who do report incidents to the cruise line they were sailing on when the assault occurred, but the cruise line does nothing to help them.

In response to the threat of legislation which will require the cruise lines to report all alleged crimes, some cruise lines have come forward and “volunteered” to do so on their websites.  Four major cruise lines have voluntarily released their crime data this week, including Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Disney Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line.  However, their “voluntary” actions are transparent in revealing their motive – to try to dissuade Congress from passing a law which holds them accountable for true and accurate crime reporting.  We applaud the bill introduced by Senator Rockefeller and Senator Blumenthal!  The cruise lines’ current offer to “voluntarily” publish crime statistics is a lot like the fox guarding the hen house.

The cruise crime “voluntary” reports released this week show that so far, a total of 11 cruise ship sexual assault crimes have occurred between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year between the four lines. Carnival reported 5 sexual assault cases, Royal Caribbean reported 3, Disney reported 2, and Norwegian reported 1. As far as cruise ship rape cases are concerned, 14 incidents have been reported thus far this year among the four cruise lines, with Carnival leading the way yet again, with 8 reports of cruise ship rape.  Royal Caribbean reported 4, Disney reported 2 and Norwegian did not report any incidents of rape onboard one of their ships so far this year.

In just the first six months of the year, we have a total of 14 rape cases and 11 sexual assault cases. This a staggering difference between what the crime data provided by cruise lines to the FBI over the past few years has suggested.

Before the issue of transparency in reporting crimes to the public was raised, cruise lines reported only 29 sexual crimes to the FBI in 2012 and only 11 to the public. So far this year, we already have notice of 25 sexual crimes in the first six months of the year and if things keep going at this rate, we may be in for worse news come December.

But will revealing all crimes – alleged and solved – to the public help reduce the rate of cruise ship crime?

It’s hard to tell, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.  Information to consumers is a good thing…right?

What the legislation seeks to do is to warn the public to the very real dangers that can be faced onboard a cruise ship so they can better prepare themselves when on a cruise vacation.  At the same time, requiring a cruise line to publish their crime statistics creates a very public incentive to the cruise line to increase its safety and security on board.  If a particular cruise line has a high incidence of sexual assault crimes, for instance, passengers may be more inclined to travel with another cruise line.  Likewise, it may create an incentive to passengers to take other precautions against shipboard crimes; for example, passengers can travel in larger groups – especially female passengers – and monitor their drinks to prevent sexual offenders from drugging them and stay away from secluded areas.