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Critic on cruise-ship crime: 'Nothing is getting accomplished'

July 2, 2012 |  6:31 am

Two years after Congress passed legislation to improve passenger safety aboard cruise ships, crime victims and other supporters of the law say key provisions are being watered down
Laurie Dishman reported being raped by a crewman during a Royal Caribbean cruise in 2006, and says she was told by the ship's doctor to collect her own evidence in two gray garbage bags

The 41-year-old from Sacramento said her cabin was never secured and that the crime scene became contaminated by visitors and a janitor who cleaned the room before any investigation could begin.

By the time FBI agents reached the ship five days after she reported the alleged rape, the crewman in question had been fired and sent home to Trinidad. Although Dishman had bruises in the shape of fingers around her neck and other physical signs of rape, charges were never filed because of insufficient evidence.

Now two years after Congress passed legislation to improve passenger safety aboard cruise ships, crime victims and other supporters of the law say key provisions are being watered down -- including the mandatory reporting of crimes and how crew members are trained to handle them.

"It's like nothing is getting accomplished," Dishman said. "We hope lawmakers will help us restore the intent of the law."

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 was designed to give passengers a more accurate picture of shipboard crime and assistance if they became victims of assault, rape or theft.

But since the law's hard-fought passage, reported crimes disclosed to the public have plummeted from more than 400 a year to a few dozen, dramatically understating the number of homicides, sexual assaults and other crimes on cruise ships.

A subtle change in the law's wording -- requested by the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard and inserted by the Senate Commerce Committee staff -- allowed the agencies to release to the public only the number of closed cases no longer under investigation.

This change runs counter to the common practice of law enforcement agencies across the nation, which disclose the number of reported crimes in their jurisdictions whether there is an investigation or not.

"The law was supposed to give victims some rights, but this does exactly the opposite of its intent," said Kendall Carver, president of the International Cruise Victims Assn. "It's far worse that it ever was. [Cruise] lines are now using this law to say how safe they are."

Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who has studied cruise lines for 20 years, noted that between Oct. 1, 2007, and September 2008, the industry provided 421 crime reports to the FBI that were made public.

Under a Freedom of Information Act request filed after the law was passed, Klein received heavily redacted records that contained only a handful of reported offenses.

"While this absence of data may serve the interest of the cruise lines, which prefer the incidence of crime to remain hidden, it is not in the interest of the public or in the spirit of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010," Klein told a Senate committee in March.

FBI and Coast Guard officials declined to comment, saying they are prohibited from discussing any information the agency might have provided to the legislative review process.

As originally written by Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), the law contained no restrictions on the public disclosure of crime statistics.

During the legislative process, the FBI and Coast Guard sought the wording change, fearing that public disclosure might jeopardize ongoing investigations and endanger lives, said Whitney Smith, Kerry's spokeswoman.

Though stakeholders were notified of the revision, Smith said, no one seemed to notice the new wording or understand the effect it would have on crime reporting.

Cruise industry officials said they were not involved in the change and asserted that the law is working as intended. Ship operators are complying with the act and continue to report crimes, said David Peikin, director of public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Assn. Congressional hearings, he added, have indicated that crime aboard cruise vessels is extremely rare.

Coast Guard officials also have said that good progress has been made implementing the law, which mandates a wide array of safety and security improvements for ships that call at U.S. ports, carry U.S. citizens or are owned by U.S. interests.

The industry handled about 11 million passengers from North America in 2010, and major cruise lines regularly call at or operate out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

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-- Dan Weikel

Photo: Kendall Carver, president of the International Cruise Victims Assn., is shown with his daughter Merrian in an undated family photo. Merrian Carver disappeared from a cruise in 2002. Credit: Associated Press

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