You might be surprised to learn that cruise ships do not have police.
Cruise ships do not have a police force on-board. In place of the police, there are privately hired security personnel. Off-duty police officers or former FBI agents are included in the private security that could be found on a cruise ship.
Law enforcement on a cruise ship is a complex issue because no law enforcement officers are on board. Add to that, factors about jurisdiction: the authority to enforce laws is different in U.S. waters, waters controlled by foreign countries, and international waters.
Who Has Jurisdiction on a Cruise Ship?
The responsibility of investigating crimes committed on the high seas typically falls to the country where a cruise ship is registered or “flagged.” Most cruise ships that operate from U.S. ports, including those owned by American cruise lines, are flagged in foreign countries like the Bahamas, Panama, and Bermuda. So, if a crime is committed against you during your cruise near the Pacific Coast of Mexico, you may end up relying on the Bermudan authorities to investigate.
The private security aboard your cruise ship is not the police, although they do have some overlapping duties.
Private security personnel is trained in things like crowd control and evidence preservation. When a crime occurs, their role is to secure the crime scene, collect any immediately perishable evidence, notify law enforcement, and make observations and reports. The FBI trains cruise security on obtaining written statements and preserving evidence.
Police collect evidence, investigate crimes, interview witnesses, and make arrests.
Under maritime law, all authority on a ship rests with the captain, giving him or her significant legal rights to ensure all aboard’s safety. Ultimately the captain has the authority to kick anyone off a ship who poses a threat.
The captain can also delegate his or her authority to the ship’s private security, which is the legal basis for obtaining their right to use force when deemed necessary.
If a situation gets out of hand, the captain can order the on-board security to physically restrain passengers and even put them in “the brig;” some ships have locked and padded cells. When authorized by the captain, private security can even accompany passengers off the ship on an extra lifeboat to the nearest port. This happened recently in Australia.
In serious cases, the police will be notified by the ship’s crew and either be waiting at the next port of call or, in extreme cases, flown aboard by helicopter.
For many, perhaps the most alarming key difference between a ship’s private security and the police is that the private security and the captain work for the cruise company. This presents an obvious potential for a conflict of interest. Many have pointed out, citing circumstances from real cases of serious crimes, that cruise companies have an incentive to minimize the number of crimes committed on board, thereby improving their overall crime rate statistics.
Critics charge this potential for a conflict of interest is only checked by the cruise company’s self-interest in not attracting attention for lack of investigation or prevention of serious crimes and existing U.S. government regulations that require the reporting of serious crimes.
When Can You Call the Police on a Cruise Ship?
Assuming you have cellular reception, you can always call the police. But the nearest law enforcement may be thousands of miles away, and they cannot help you unless you know whose jurisdiction you’re in, which requires knowing your precise location. This essentially makes you dependent on the on-board security.
That is who you are going to call if you need immediate help. They will ensure everyone’s safety and determine if a crime has been committed. If that is the case, they are responsible for preserving the crime scene, collecting and documenting time-sensitive evidence, and notifying the proper authorities.
Under U.S. law, all cruise ships docking at U.S. ports must:
- Have forensic specialists on board who specialize in gathering evidence from sexual assaults
- Have designated crew trained in crime scene preservation techniques
- Report crimes to the U.S. government and serious crimes to the FBI (more on this below)
- Determining Jurisdiction and Which Police to Call
Where your ship is when the crime is committed determines which country’s police will have jurisdiction. If you are in Mexican territorial waters, you will work with the Mexican police. If you are in the territorial waters of the Bahamas, you’ll work with the Bahamian police.
In U.S. waters, the jurisdiction of law enforcement also depends on where you are. You might be within the boundary of state or local law enforcement, or you might be within the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, including the U.S. Coast Guard.
According to U.S. law, when you are an American citizen in international waters, the United States can claim jurisdiction over a crime you have been involved in, whether you’re a victim, a witness, or the perpetrator. In this case, you would be dealing with the FBI.
Nine-times-out-of-ten the FBI is your best bet for cruise crime law enforcement. They can confirm they have jurisdiction over your case, or they can direct you to the appropriate agency that does. They can also point you to helpful resources from the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy. If you are not sure who to call, call the FBI. They have a dedicated unit for investigating crimes within the U.S. maritime jurisdiction.
Furthermore, for some crimes, the FBI can get involved in a criminal case even if the crime happened in another country’s jurisdiction. For example, the Department of Justice can file criminal charges against any American who engages in illicit sexual conduct with a minor anywhere in the world.
However, international maritime law also states that when a crime is committed aboard a ship in international waters, the country where the vessel is registered is responsible for investigating it. So, unless it’s a severe crime that would pique the FBI’s attention, if you’re in international waters, you’re probably going to be working with police from the country where your ship is flagged.
Reporting Laws Do Not Guarantee Investigation by United States Police
Do not be fooled into thinking U.S. laws about reporting cruise ship crime translate into U.S. police jurisdiction.
Under U.S. law, all cruise ships using U.S. ports must immediately report all criminal activity to the FBI, regardless of the geographical location where the crime took place. Cruise ship companies must also report serious crimes like homicide, theft of $10,000 or greater, and sexual assault to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which compiles these reports into a publicly available database.
However, the investigation of the crime is still determined by who had jurisdiction at the time and place where the crime was committed.
The Most Common Types of Crimes
The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains a quarterly incident report database for cruise lines, which tracks serious alleged crimes. For the first three quarters of 2018, it shows:
- 3 suspicious passenger deaths
- 5 cases of a missing U.S. passenger
- 4 cases of passenger assault causing serious bodily injury
- 14 cases of theft of more than $10,000; however, no passengers were involved
- 60 cases of sexual assault, with 42 of those involving passengers
Breaking down the alleged cases of sexual assaults, the companies that had the most incident reports were:
- Carnival Cruise Lines – 30 total; 24 passengers and 5 crew
- Royal Caribbean – 14 total; 9 passengers and 4 crew
- Norwegian Cruise Lines – 4 total; 3 passengers
While these numbers could be attributable to a correlation between a higher number of passengers and many reports, Carnival Cruise Lines accounts for more than half of all sexual assault allegations by passengers.
Last year NBC News did an investigation into sexual assault on cruise ships. It profiled one 16-year-old girl who was allegedly molested by a gym trainer. On a cruise with her family, her mother immediately contacted ship security.
Initially, the mother thought she was going to be satisfied with the way things developed. “They did take a report. They took evidence. They took her underwear and things like that. They called the FBI, so we had them waiting for us when we got back to the port,” she said.
However, even with the family’s testimony, evidence collected by cruise security, and involvement by the FBI, the family could never file charges against the alleged assailant.
And according to the victims and family members of alleged sexual assaults that NBC News spoke to, some of their cases were hardly investigated, and most were not prosecuted.
In addition to jurisdictional issues arising from a ship’s location, the report raised another aspect of why crimes committed on the high seas are difficult to prosecute: because of nationality. Cruise companies often hire foreign nationals to work as staff, and passengers will always encounter foreign nationals when they are ashore in a different country. Prosecuting or investigating a crime committed by a foreign national can involve embassies, diplomats, and extradition, giving the victims of crimes on cruise ships, even more, hurdles to navigate.