Cruise ship safety bill sails through committee


A bill that would require peace officers aboard cruise ships sailing from California ports cleared its first hurdle Tuesday as the state Senate’s public safety committee voted to move it forward in the legislative process.

Such ships generally have private security guards, but a spate of alleged crimes on the high seas has prompted victims and their families to push for greater oversight. Several federal and international laws and agencies regulate cruise ships, but most of the major cruise lines register their ships in foreign countries such as Liberia and Panama and sail in international waters, raising complicated jurisdictional issues.

Senate Bill 1582, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), calls for funding “ocean rangers” with a $1-a-day passenger fee. The rangers would monitor public safety and ensure that ships comply with environmental regulations that prohibit them from dumping waste within three miles of the state’s coastline. If passed, the bill would give California the most stringent cruise-ship regulations in the nation.

The Senate’s environmental quality committee will consider the bill Monday. A trade group for the cruise industry said Tuesday that it opposed the bill.

“Every cruise line supports your effort to punish crime on cruise ships,” said Larry Kaye, maritime attorney for the Cruise Line International Assn. Inc. “This industry can’t survive if our passengers don’t feel safe. Frankly, we’d welcome a bill that gives California the right to investigate, prosecute and convict — and perhaps a port officer would be one solution — but placing an embedded ranger on board who doesn’t have jurisdiction would hinder any prosecution even by the FBI, and we should not let that happen.”

But during the hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, Simitian and victims of crimes aboard cruise ships described a “lawless environment” in which the industry’s primary interest is protecting itself from liability.

“Private security is in a fundamentally compromised situation,” Simitian said. “Private security has to worry about the public relations issue. . . . They have to be concerned about the liability of their employer and they are in many cases investigating crimes committed by their fellow employees.”

There needs to be some oversight, Simitian said, so that “trust us” doesn’t become the standard for law enforcement on cruise ships.

Sacramento resident Laurie Dishman tearfully told lawmakers that she was raped on a Royal Caribbean ship sailing from Southern California in 2006. She said when she reported the incident to ship employees, they handed her plastic trash bags and told her to collect her own evidence.

Kendall Carver, president of International Cruise Victims, described the disappearance of his adult daughter, who was not reported missing to the FBI by Royal Caribbean until five weeks after her Alaskan cruise ended in 2004. She has not been found.

The industry says it has “zero tolerance for crime,” Carver testified, but “the last thing they want to do is get somebody independent on that ship to make sure that nothing happens.”

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the safety committee, encouraged the industry and victim advocates to work together.

“You have your work cut out for you,” Romero told Simitian. “I think there is some more middle ground that is available to us. . . . The cruise line industry is very significant for California. We want to make sure that it’s safe and secure and at the same time too that it does not go overboard.”