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Data on crimes committed aboard cruise ships remain limited despite a 2010 federal law intended to improve the reporting process, with less than a third of alleged offenses made public and then only months or years after they were reported, the U.S. General Accountability Office said Monday.
That prevents passengers from making informed decisions prior to booking cruise vacations, it said.
In a review of compliance with the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, the GAO reported that the cruise industry had generally made good progress meeting the law’s requirements, implementing 11 of 15 provisions. Regulations for the other four are still being developed.
But the GAO raised questions about the usefulness of the law’s crime-reporting requirements, which it said produce outdated statistics on only a subset of alleged crimes and provide no context for consumers to judge an individual cruise line’s safety record.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and critic of the cruise industry’s crime reporting, said he finds the lack of reliable statistics disheartening.
“I’ll give the cruise ships some credit, because of the first bill we passed they raised the level of their railings,” he said. “… They’ve done a pretty good job on that, but when it comes to crime, no they have not.”
And many victims of cruise ship crime say that while the federal law may have improved safety and security aboard the ships, it did little to correct a lack of accountability when it comes to investigating crimes.
Serious crimes, scant data
The law requires cruise lines to report to the FBI allegations of eight serious crimes – homicide, suspicious death, missing U.S. national, kidnapping, assault with serious bodily injury, firing or tampering with the vessel, theft of money or property in excess of $10,000 and certain sexual offenses. But statistics on those crimes are published by the Coast Guard on its website only after the investigations are closed – often months or years after they were reported.
From January 2010 through September 2013, the GAO said, that meant data on only 81 of the 287 required crime reports were made public.
The GAO also said that the data that is ultimately published lacks context that would enable the public to compare crime rates aboard cruise vessels to land-based crime rates.
The report noted, however, that six cruise lines that carry more than 90 percent of the approximately 11 million passengers who depart on cruises from U.S. ports each year had voluntarily begun posting online statistics on all reports of serious crimes committed on their vessels.
Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association, said the intent is to provide consumers with an unparalleled level of transparency.
“Although allegations of serious crime on cruise ships are a small fraction of corresponding rates on land, the cruise industry voluntarily discloses allegations of serious crime to the public so consumers can see for themselves that alleged crimes on cruise ships are uncommon,” she said in a statement provided to NBC News.
The GAO report also examined the challenges of investigating crimes committed at sea, noting that FBI investigators often cannot examine the crime scene and collect evidence until long after the crime is reported, requiring cruise ship personnel to respond initially.
“This can be disconcerting to the victim of a crime, particularly if the alleged perpetrator is a cruise line employee,” it said.
The investigative chain also can become tangled if the ship stops in other ports after the alleged crime is committed, as law enforcement agencies in those jurisdictions may investigate the crime if they choose, the report noted.
Janet Powers of Portland, Ore., said she found herself in a jurisdictional nightmare when she was assaulted during a Carnival cruise in the Caribbean with her kids in March 2011.
That's my mom!
After complaining to crew members about a child making noise in a hallway every night, Powers said she was later confronted by the child’s father and some friends. When the discussion grew heated, she said, the man grabbed her by the hair and banged her head against the wall, knocking her unconscious.
Powers, a single mom, said when she awoke, she heard her daughter screaming "That's my mom!"
Ship security personnel took Powers to the ship’s doctor, but she declined medical treatment. She then wrote an eight-page report detailing the attack and gave it to them.
At the next port of call, Powers demanded that the man be arrested, but crew members said he could not be arrested until the ship returned to Puerto Rico. Then, when the ship arrived in Puerto Rico, police said they had no jurisdiction and referred her to the FBI.
Powers filed a complaint with an FBI agent and was assured the incident would be investigated. Meantime, the man and was allowed to disembark with his family and go on his way.
Powers provided NBC News with emails she later exchanged with a representative in the FBI’s victim assistance office, including a final notification informing her that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had determined the case did not meet the Justice Department’s standard for prosecution.
The GAO report noted that FBI officials have taken steps to address the difficulties investigating such cases, primarily by working with cruise line security personnel to improve crime scene preservation.
Despite the concerns raised by the GAO about the crime reporting regimen, the cruise line association’s Duffy said she was “pleased” that the report concluded that cruise lines are complying with the requirements of the new law and stressed that the rate of crime aboard its members’ vessels is low.
Related: Crimes on cruises profoundly under-reported, prompting vow of transparency
“The GAO report notes that the low rate of alleged crime on cruise ships as compared with land-based crimes can be explained in part by the fact that passengers are in a set environment, all persons and items brought on board are screened, camera surveillance is ubiquitous, and security personnel are present,” she said.
But Sen. Rockefeller said he suspects the crime data available to the public may not tell the full story.
“It’s my strong belief that it’s in the interest of the lines to report as few crimes (as possible), crimes towards young people who are vulnerable,” he said.