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Cruise crime policy is blasted

Victims say ship operators' voluntary agreement to report incidents is not enough.

March 28, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Victims blasted a cruise ship crime-reporting deal between the industry and the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday, calling it too little, too late.

The agreement to report crimes -- something the industry says it has been doing for years -- was dismissed as a last-minute attempt to stave off regulation. The agreement was sealed Monday on the eve of the third congressional hearing on cruise safety in 16 months.

"I think it's Mickey Mouse," said Ken Carver, co-founder of International Cruise Victims, whose daughter disappeared from a cruise in 2004. "It's voluntary. There are no penalties. If they're serious, they'd say, 'Hey, we're willing to make this a law.' "

Under the procedures laid out in the agreement, which wasn't made public, cruise operators would call the nearest FBI office to report serious crimes, such as murder and rape. Other incidents would be reported via e-mail or fax.

The FBI would compile the data in an annual report that would be shared with the industry, categorizing the crimes but not identifying the cruise lines. An FBI spokesman said the plan wasn't for the reports to be made public, though that could change.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Wayne Justice, testifying before a House transportation subcommittee Tuesday, described the agreement as "an excellent step in the right direction." Terry Dale, president of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Cruise Lines International Assn., said it was a demonstration of the fact that the industry's "highest priority is to ensure the safety and security of its passengers and crew."

In 1999, the $32-billion industry adopted a reporting initiative, the Zero Tolerance for Crime Policy, during another period of congressional scrutiny. Under the terms of Monday's agreement, there will now be a yearly report.

"This report ... represents the first disciplined effort to gather serious crime statistics with respect to cruise ships frequented by U.S. nationals," Justice said.

The question of how crimes are reported and investigated on cruise ships is complicated by a tangled web of overlapping jurisdictions depending on where a ship is traveling, and the fact that ships are foreign-flagged.

Although there were cruise ship defenders on the dais at the four-hour hearing Tuesday -- namely Florida lawmakers who noted the $5.5 billion in industry spending in the state -- several members of the subcommittee were highly critical.

"The more I have inquired, the more I have been alarmed that there is no shortage of cases of rape, sexual assaults of minors, alcohol-related fighting and abuse, and persons overboard," said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), who scheduled the hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. "The onion, it seems, has only more layers to peel back."

During hearings in March 2006, industry representatives testified that there were 178 reports of sexual assault during a three-year period, 66 of them on Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd. ships. The Times reported in January that, according to court records, at least 273 people told the cruise line that they had been the victims of sexual assault, battery, harassment or inappropriate contact.

On Tuesday, Gary Bald, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of global security, defended the numbers released by the industry last March as "true and accurate."

Several members of the subcommittee said they were moved by Laurie Dishman, a 36-year-old Sacramento woman who testified that she was raped on a Royal Caribbean ship in February 2006 by a janitor who was filling in as a security guard.

As she struggled through her testimony, she brought several people in the audience to tears.

"Can you work to prevent someone from becoming the next Laurie Dishman?" she asked.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the subcommittee's chairman, said he planned to call another hearing in six months.

"I promise you ... if there's breath in my body," he told industry officials, "you'll be back."

kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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