Diane Dimond: Hit the high seas on vacation, but be careful
Summertime. Vacation time. No time to let your guard down. Traditionally, crime goes up during warmer weather, with property crimes and aggravated assaults on the rise. In some locations, murder rates increase, too. When temperatures rise, there are more windows left open, more sweaty and irritated people seeking relief outside, and more alcoholic beverages consumed in public, all of which can prompt bad behavior.
Maybe you and your family have decided to take an ocean cruise to get away from it all this summer. Well, beware, because there is crime on the high seas, too — sometimes violent crime. And consider this: A vessel might be registered in the Bahamas, headquartered in Miami, traveling in international waters and carrying passengers from any number of foreign countries, so law enforcement jurisdiction is murky.
If the ship departs from, say, Florida, and a crime is committed onboard, the local police might investigate once the cruise liner returns to port. The feds have jurisdiction if a crime has occurred against a U.S. national on a ship that has departed or will arrive back in the States. The FBI might be assigned to investigate. But these professionals will be days removed from when the crime was committed. Every detective will tell you that evidence gathered immediately following a crime is often crucial to prosecution.
The cruise industry says it caters to more than 24 million customers each year and that crime rates on board one of those massive floating hotels is a “small fraction of the comparable rates of crime on land.”
But on dry land, you can immediately call 911 for help. You likely have a cop shop a few minutes’ driving distance from your location and a fully equipped hospital nearby. On a cruise ship, perhaps hundreds of miles out at sea, you’ve got … well, you’ve got whatever the ship has to offer.
An official with the Cruise Lines International Association insists there is “robust security” onboard to assure passengers are safe. But let’s get real: Any security officers are working for the cruise line, and their primary allegiance may not be to a victimized passenger. Their efforts gathering evidence, taking witness statements or tracking down suspects may be lacking.
NBC News has reported extensively on cruise line crime and calculated that of the 92 alleged crimes reported on cruise ships last year, 62 were sexual assaults. I’m guessing here, but I bet the combination of hot temperatures and free-flowing booze tends to reduce passengers’ inhibitions. But most frightening is that a majority of the sexual assaults — be they committed by crew members or passengers — were never prosecuted. A congressional report from a few years ago found that minors were the victims in a third of those sexual assaults.
“The dirty secret in the cruise line industry is that crime does occur on cruise ships and very often law enforcement isn’t notified, evidence isn’t preserved, people aren’t assisted,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He is sponsoring a bill in the U.S. Senate that would require cruise lines to report any claim of criminal activity to the FBI within four hours, turn over all video evidence, earmark cases in which youngsters are involved and include a federal officer called a sea marshal on each ship. I’d like to add that each vessel be equipped with a proper evidentiary rape kit.
NBC’s reporting included stories about victimized teenage girls, one of whom tried to commit suicide after she alleged that she was given alcohol and raped onboard a cruise to the Virgin Islands. Another teen interviewed claimed she was sexually assaulted by a crew member in the ship’s gym. Jim Walker, a Miami attorney, said his firm has represented many victims of alleged cruise ship crime, including one who was just 3 years old.
The average passenger load on an ocean liner is about 3,000. But some mega-cruise liners can hold up to 6,000. Whenever you get that many people in a finite space, lulled by adult activities over here and supervised children and youth activities over there, trouble can develop.
I’m sure the cruise lines do their very best to fully vet and hire suitable employees. It would not be in their best interest to do otherwise. But this summer, if you are taking the family on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise to paradise, don’t let your guard down. Have a wonderful vacation, but realize that crime can happen anywhere, and you and yours are not immune.