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Law shields industry on cruise-ship crime information

PHOENIX — Ever since Kendall Carver's daughter mysteriously disappeared on an Alaskan cruise in 2004, he has dedicated his life to holding the cruise-line industry more accountable for passenger safety.

The retired Phoenix businessman believed he succeeded in 2010 with the passage of federal legislation that was supposed to reveal the full picture of the deaths, sexual assaults, thefts, missing persons and other crimes reported on cruise ships. ,

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who sponsored the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, promised the bill would provide greater transparency about crimes on passenger ships operating out of U.S. ports.

However, unknown to Carver and other supporters, the bill was changed shortly before it passed to provide less, not more, information about cruise-ship crime.

Kerry's own office was responsible for altering the bill without alerting other stakeholders about the changes. Kerry's press secretary acknowledged for the first time publicly last month that the bill was changed to hold back information about cases at the request of the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard.

The agencies "feared that reporting on pending cases could impact ongoing investigations and endanger lives and efforts to bring criminals to justice," press secretary Whitney Smith said.

Carver, who helped spearhead the legislation, said he feels betrayed.

"The bill is being sabotaged. The FBI is using the regulation to gut the intent of the bill," he said. "The FBI and the Coast Guard, the very people who should be looking out for United States citizens, have watered this thing down."

The new act requires cruise lines to report all serious crimes aboard ships to the FBI. Originally, it required the Coast Guard to maintain a public database of all serious crimes on cruise ships. Language added before its passage altered the bill so that only crimes "no longer under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation" were reported in the public database.

The upshot: The public is not allowed to see reports of all alleged crimes aboard ships. Where the FBI once publicly reported more than 400 crimes a year, only six crimes on ships in the past nine months have been listed on the public database. And cases not investigated by the FBI — for example, allegations handled by a ship's security staff — never will be reported in the database under the new law.

Now, Carver and other cruise-safety experts say the industry is using the lack of crime reports to suggest that ocean liners are safer than they have ever been.

Carver and supporters of the legislation had no idea it had been changed until last year, when the first crime reports were posted. They spent months trying to determine how and why the wording in the bill was altered.

Matsui, in an April television interview, said her office was investigating how the language made it into the bill. She accused the FBI of misinterpreting the bill and said withholding crime statistics was counter to the law's intent.

The FBI and the Coast Guard would not comment on the changes in the bill or respond to questions about the crime-reporting statistics.

"We are not at liberty to discuss any information we may have fed into the legislative review process," FBI spokeswoman Denise Ballew said in an e-mail Friday.

Kerry's office did not elaborate on what evidence, if any, the FBI used to determine that releasing crime statistics on cruise ships would affect investigations.

However, both congressional offices say they plan to correct problems in the original bill.

"It's hardly the last word on the subject or the last effort needed to correct problems Mr. Carver and others identified," Smith said.

Safer than land?

More than 16 million people took cruise vacations worldwide in 2011.

The cruise industry, which supports the law as written, for years has maintained that cruises are one of the safest ways to travel, and that a person is far more likely to be a victim of crime at home than aboard a ship.

Crime statistics tell a different story, according to Ross Klein, a professor of sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

"It is not safer than being on land. Passengers need to know that they are at risk," said Klein, who has written four books on cruise safety and testified at U.S. congressional hearings on oversight of the cruise industry.

Klein said that research based on crime reports from the FBI in 2007-08 showed that a person was more than 50 percent more likely to be assaulted on one popular cruise line than on land in Canada.

And Klein said that at a minimum, 18 percent of all crime incidents on ships involve minors. "You shouldn't be letting your child run around thinking that it is perfectly safe," he said.

Before the bill passed, cruise ships were self-regulating and not required under U.S. law to report crimes that took place in international waters.

Ships in national waters, which extend 12 miles from land, were required to report crimes to the FBI. Most cruise lines, however, voluntarily provided the FBI with the crime data.

The new law mandates that all cruise lines operating out of U.S. ports keep a log of reported crimes and provide them to the FBI.

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