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Originally published September 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 28, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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An ongoing effort to fight cruise-ship crime

The number of crimes on cruise ships is "remarkably low," a cruise-industry official told a congressional subcommittee, pointing to a recent...

Los Angeles Times

Information

Cruise Lines International Association: www.cruising.orgInternational Cruise Victims: www.internationalcruisevictims.org/

The number of crimes on cruise ships is "remarkably low," a cruise-industry official told a congressional subcommittee, pointing to a recent five months of incidents reported to the FBI.

But alleged victims who came forward emphasized problems with the way crimes were handled aboard ships and demanded that laws be passed to regulate the $32 billion cruise business and its massive ships operating under foreign "flags of convenience."

The hearing earlier this month was the fourth on cruise-ship crimes and followed a March meeting of the House Transportation subcommittee in which lawmakers ordered industry executives and victims to work together to improve security measures.

At the time, the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard and the cruise industry announced a voluntary agreement to report serious crimes. That agreement was blasted by the advocacy group International Cruise Victims, which called it a last-ditch effort to stave off formal regulation.

At the hearing, both sides acknowledged that some progress had been made. Still, lawmakers insisted that the industry present another status report in 90 days.

"There's some reaching going on by the industry, but maybe they're not reaching far enough," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. "More needs to be done."

Industry and law-enforcement officials testified that between April 1 and Aug. 24, the FBI had received 207 reports of serious crimes, including four missing people, 41 sexual assaults and 13 thefts of items valued at more than $10,000. Of the 18 open cases, 13 involved sexual assaults.

Although cruise officials, the FBI and the Coast Guard said they were satisfied that serious events were being reported, it remained unclear how the public might obtain the information. There are no plans to publish the data on any Web site.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Wayne Justice said the figures could be obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, which is a lengthy and potentially costly process.

Industry officials said they were committed to improving safety and working with victims.

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Cruise Lines International Association announced the formation of a Survivor Working Group, which would meet quarterly and be made up of victims or their families, senior-level cruise-line executives and industry groups.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd. — the cruise line that has faced the most scrutiny, in part because of high-visibility incidents — has hired at least two former FBI officials. One of them, Gary M. Bald, now the company's senior vice president of global security, rattled off several steps the cruise line had taken in the past six months to improve safety and the treatment of victims.

"Ultimately this process is not about statistics or even about past incidents, although both are important," Bald said. "It is about preventing even a single negative experience on a cruise ship. This is no small task."

Among the changes, Royal Caribbean is installing peepholes on cabin doors in its two newest ships and working on a third, existing ship. The company plans to install peepholes on doors of all its ships, a company spokesman said.

In addition, Royal Caribbean has hired female investigators and counselors, put suicide hot lines in place and required mandatory sexual-harassment training. In January, the company will begin notifying guests of a shipboard policy that crew members are not to fraternize with customers. Additionally, cameras are being installed in hallways and corridors, although Bald conceded that those cameras were not being monitored.

"We're pleased at the initiatives that Royal Caribbean may be taking; we're disappointed that it has taken so long," said William M. Sullivan Jr., an attorney who testified at the hearing and is representing a 20-year-old woman who reported being raped by a Royal Caribbean crew member who she said used his keys to enter her cabin while she slept in March. The woman called the ship's 911 line, but the employee who answered did not take her seriously — and laughed, Sullivan said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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