Do Cruise Ships Have Police?

How Your Ship’s Private Security Force Is Different From The Police

You might be surprised to learn that cruise ships do not have police.

They have private security which may include off-duty police or former FBI agents, but that does not change the fact that security on cruise ships is private.

Do Cruise Ship Security Carry Guns?

Law enforcement on a cruise ship is a complex issue, not least because there are no law enforcement officers on board. Add to that factors about jurisdiction: the authority to enforce laws is different in US waters, waters controlled by foreign countries, and international waters.

And if that didn’t make things complicated enough, the responsibility of investigating crimes committed on the high seas typically falls to the country where a cruise ship is registered (“flagged”). The vast majority of cruise ships that operate from US 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.

Who Has Jurisdiction on a Cruise Ship?

The private security aboard your cruise ship are not police, although they do have some overlapping duties.

Private security personnel are 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 to make observations and reports. In fact, 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 the safety of all aboard. 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 where they obtain their right to use force when it’s 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 actually 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 actually happened recently in Australia.

In serious cases the police will be notified and either be waiting at the next port of call or, in extreme cases, flown aboard by helicopter.

But for many perhaps the most alarming key difference between a ship’s private security and the police is that the private security – along with the captain – works 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 a lack to investigate or prevent serious crimes, and existing US government regulations that require the reporting of serious crimes.

When Can You Call The Police on a Cruise Ship?

Assuming you have 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’s who you’re 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 US law, all cruise ships docking at US 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 US 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’re in Mexican territorial waters you will work with the Mexican police. If you’re in the territorial waters of the Bahamas you’ll work with the Bahamian police.

In US waters the jurisdiction of law enforcement also depends 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 US Coast Guard.

When you’re an American citizen in international waters, according to US law the United States can claim jurisdiction over a crime you’ve been involved in, whether you’re a victim, a witness, or the perpetrator. In this case you would be dealing with the FBI.

In fact, 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 who does. They can also point you to helpful resources from the nearest US consulate or embassy. If you’re not sure who to call, call the FBI. They have a dedicated unit for investigating crimes within the US 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 ship is registered is responsible for investigating the crime. So unless it’s a very serious 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.

Cruise Ships Online

Reporting Laws Do Not Guarantee Investigation By United States Police

Don’t be fooled into thinking US laws about reporting cruise ship crime translate into US police jurisdiction.

Under US law, all cruise ships using US 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 US Department of Transportation, which compiles these reports into a publicly available database.

But once again, who investigates the crime is determined by who had jurisdiction at the time and place where the crime was committed.

The Most Common Types of Crimes

 The US Department of Transportation maintains a database of quarterly cruise line incident reports, which track serious alleged crimes. For the first three quarters of 2018 it shows:

  • 3 suspicious passenger deaths
  • 5 cases of a missing US 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 a higher number of reports, Carnival Cruise Lines accounts for more than half of all sexual assault allegations by passengers.

Real-Life Examples

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 was never able to 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’re 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.

Jason Smith

Former Marine, IT Guy & Builder of Websites.  I have 5 US states left to visit. I enjoy hot springs, adventures, hiking, photography, sci-fi, wine, coffee & whiskey.  I am fluent in sarcasm, name that tune, & speak in movie quotes.  I spend most of my time building websites, fixing computers, metal detecting, magnet fishing and gaming occasionally.

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