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Cruise ship crimes: Why so hush-hush?

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In the age of headline news and Twitter, the name of a proposed law must get as much focus-grouping as the content of the law itself.

Remember the George W. Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind”? Sounds so caring and concerned. Eventually the name became a much-parodied punchline.

Names of propositions and laws like Megan’s Law and Marsy’s Law, named for crime victims, carry so much emotional weight that voters can be swayed by the names alone, never mind the content. L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley told me in 2008, just before voters went to the polls over “Marsy’s Law” -- formally called the Victims Bill of Rights Act -- that the measure, which ended up passing, would sweep aside “decades of legislative scrutiny and judicial review.” It plays to voters’ feelings, selling itself with a female victim’s name, “like a cherry on the ice cream.”

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Now my colleague Dan Weikel has written a story about the gap between intentions and results, of a law Congress passed two years ago, the laudably named “Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.”’

As it turns out, he writes, the law to improve cruise-ship passengers’ safety may, in fact, be doing the opposite, diluting some important provisions, such as mandatory crime reporting, and the kind of training crew members are supposed to get to handle shipboard crimes.

The law is, among other things, supposed to help passengers get better facts and better information about crimes aboard ship, and what help they should be getting if they are victims of assault, rape or theft.

Instead, Dan writes, in the two years since the law passed, and passed narrowly, what the public hears is that reported shipboard crimes have dropped from more than 400 a year to a mere few dozen, understating deaths, rapes and other shipboard crimes -- an extraordinary drop that defies belief.

It doesn’t seem to mean that there are fewer crimes on cruise ships -- just that the law narrows the definition of what crimes can be publicly reported.

Kendall Carver is president of the International Cruise Victims Assn. His daughter disappeared during an Alaskan cruise, and the cruise line didn’t report it until five weeks after the cruise ended -- and one week after the Carver family started asking questions.

He says the law has wound up doing “exactly the opposite of its intent … it’s far worse than it ever was.” And not surprisingly, cruise lines “are now using this law to say how safe they are.”

Here’s why. The FBI and the Coast Guard had asked Congress for wording that means, under the law, that the public only is allowed to be told about the number of closed cases that are no longer being investigated.

That’s just about 180 degrees opposite what law enforcement agencies do on land: All reported crimes are public record, not just those under investigation or resolved.

See how insidious such a policy can be?

If we heard only about the LAPD’s closed cases, nobody would have heard of the Black Dahlia, and the recent murders of two USC graduate students from China might not be public knowledge. Women in South L.A. wouldn’t have been told to be on alert for the “Teardrop Rapist,” who has raped nearly three dozen women in the course of about 15 years, one as recently as last month.

This kind of result is hardly what a law called the “Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act” sounds like it was meant to achieve. Turns out, the security and safety being protected here are the economic security and fiscal safety of cruise lines.

What is the FBI and the Coast Guard’s stake in keeping cruise ship crimes so hush-hush? Do shipboard crimes have a particularly low solve rate?

The original law, written by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), didn’t have any such restrictions on public disclosure of crime statistics. Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith, who said Kerry is working to strengthen the disclosure rules, said the FBI and Coast Guard wanted to change the wording for fear public disclosure might hurt their investigations and endanger lives. That’s an excuse, but not a reason. Other law enforcement agencies operate more transparently all the time, and they seem to be able to clear up cases just fine.

Dan wrote that a cruise industry spokesman says it had nothing to do with the change in the wording, and that they’re adhering to the new rules and reporting crimes. About 11 million passengers embark on cruises from North American in 2010, and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are bustling with them.

It goes without saying that victims and their families are not happy. When Laurie Dishman reported being raped aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise in 2006, the ship’s doctor, she said, told her to collect her own evidence, in two garbage bags, and a janitor cleaned up the room before the investigation began. “It’s like nothing is getting accomplished,” the Sacramento woman said. “We hope lawmakers will help us restore the intent of the law.” (And hope, too, that Kerry and Matsui and their staffs are better at reading the fine print this time around to plug this hole in the ocean-going law.)

FBI agents got to the ship five days after Dishman reported being raped, by which time the crewman suspect had been fired and sent home to Trinidad.

This stinginess with the facts also flies in the face of the FBI’s own recent track record of better reporting on rape crimes.

About six months ago, the FBI broadened its very limited and antiquated definition of rape, which for 80 years had been “carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” There are many other types of rape than that, and the FBI’s definition was so narrow that many rape cases in virtually every police department across the country didn’t make it into the FBI’s crime reports, because the feds’ definition was so restrictive.

Why was this a problem? Because crimes that don’t get reported or classified as crimes don’t figure into public policy, into victims’ programs, into lawmaking and funding for law enforcement. “From a citizen’s point of view, you can’t monitor something if you can’t measure it,” said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, who had lobbied the FBI for 10 years to make the change.

Ditto on the waters. A broader definition on land, but less transparency at sea? Or did I miss something, and we’re talking about an altogether different agency: the Floating Bureau of Investigation?

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The strange streets of L.A.

America’s ‘Pacific pivot’ craze

Hey, L.A., everyone into the pool!


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