Seeking to improve public safety on the high seas, a state senator introduced a bill Friday that would require cruise ships sailing from California ports to have a peace officer on board.
If the measure passes, California would have the most stringent state regulations on the $35.7-billion industry, which has come under congressional and public scrutiny after several high-profile cases of missing people, passengers overboard and sexual assault in recent years.
"We've got air marshals on planes with a couple hundred passengers, but we've got no one on board the cruise ships with 10 times the number of passengers," said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the bill's author.
The peace officers, whose salaries would be funded by a $1-a-day passenger fee, also would serve as licensed marine engineers to monitor compliance with environmental laws that Simitian has championed.
Cruise ships hire their own security officers, but increasingly, lawmakers and law enforcement officials are questioning whether that is sufficient. Congressional subcommittees have held hearings into how the industry handles potentially criminal incidents and complaints aboard their floating cities.
"On board security works for the cruise line -- not for the passengers and not for the public," Simitian said. "There's an inherent conflict of interest between the public relations goals of the employer and the public safety requirements of the passenger."
Industry officials maintain that their ships are safe and have opposed most recent regulatory efforts. They have not yet taken a position on Simitian's legislation.
"We just are not in a position to offer any opinions on this legislation until we've had a chance to review it," said Eric Ruff, spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Assn.
California's $1.9-billion cruise industry, with ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, represents about 14% of U.S. embarkations. In all, more than 1.2 million passengers embarked in California in 2006.
Simitian's bill builds on previous legislation he wrote prohibiting ships from incinerating garbage or dumping sewage sludge or hazardous waste within three miles of the state's coastline. The latest bill is modeled after the ocean ranger program in Alaska, where voters approved a hard-fought ballot initiative in 2006 to place a Coast Guard-licensed environmental engineer on board cruise ships.
"The goal is to have an ocean ranger on the entire West Coast, because the cruise ships go back and forth between the ports," said Gershon Cohen of Earth Island Institute, a conservation organization.
There are ocean rangers "in Alaska, but they can still dump in California, Oregon and British Columbia and who will know?" Cohen added. "You have zero-discharge policy in California, but you don't know if anybody is doing it because there's no enforcement and no way to monitor compliance."
Kendall Carver, president and co-founder of International Cruise Victims, a group that has lobbied for federal regulation of the industry, said his organization was thrilled with the bill. "This would be a great step forward."
Congressional hearings on cruise safety have shed light on the fact that cruise ship personnel are not trained to investigate crimes. Moreover, days can pass between when a suspected crime is committed on board and when the ship arrives in port and an official investigation can begin. Evidence can be tainted, if it is collected at all.
Laurie Dishman, a Sacramento resident who reported being raped on a Royal Caribbean ship sailing to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, from Long Beach, testified before U.S. Congress last year about being asked to collect her own evidence.
"It's going to be almost a year now since I testified before Congress," Dishman said this week.
"In the year's time, the cruise industry has done nothing to show Congress or any of us victims that they're going to make changes."
In Dishman's case, despite bruise marks around her neck, no criminal charges were filed against her alleged attacker, a security guard working for the ship.
The peace officer would ensure that reported crimes are appropriately handled on board without interference from the ship's attorneys or other employees whose primary job is to protect the company, Dishman said.
"This is the way people are going to be able to get criminal prosecution," she said.