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State panel kills cruise safety bill that would have put peace officers aboard ships sailing from California ports

"Buyer beware when you climb on a cruise ship in California. You're on your own."

Jun 25, 2008

A state Assembly committee Tuesday killed a bill strongly opposed by cruise companies that would have placed peace officers for the first time on passenger ships sailing from California ports.

The committee voted 2-2 with three abstentions, effectively ending efforts by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) to increase regulation of the $35.7-billion industry.

The heavily lobbied bill already had been approved by the state Senate but failed to move past the Assembly's Public Safety Committee on concerns that it would create a jurisdictional and legal mess.

It would have been the most stringent regulation in an industry that victim-rights advocates contend is governed by a vague web of federal and international rules that allows crime and crime reporting to fall through the cracks.

The bill would have authorized "ocean rangers" -- combined certified peace officers and licensed marine engineers -- who would monitor public safety and ensure that ships complied with environmental laws that prohibit dumping.

"I think the committee action today sends an unfortunate message," Simitian said. "Buyer beware when you climb on a cruise ship. You're on your own."

Cruise industry officials and travel agents, though, said legislation wasn't needed because crime wasn't a major problem.

"Cruise ship crimes are neither underreported nor widespread," said Gary Bald, Royal Caribbean Cruises' senior vice president of global security. "Not one victim has come forward to say we failed to report a crime."

In 140 Royal Caribbean cruises from California in the last nine months, five crimes have been reported, Bald said, adding that the number did not merit additional security or the $3-per-passenger fee required under the bill to pay for the officers.

But Burbank resident Jamie Barnett, who said she was "desperately seeking reform and oversight in an industry that is so in need of both," believes that a peace officer on board might have been able to help save her 24-year-old daughter, Ashley Barnett. In October 2005, on a cruise to Ensenada from Long Beach, Ashley died of the toxic effects of methadone, though tests showed she did not use drugs.

"All in all, it makes me angrier, more determined," Barnett said after testifying Tuesday.

In Washington last week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) led a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on cruise safety issues. Kerry said he planned to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to clarify crime reporting procedures.

"Buyer beware when you climb on a cruise ship in California. You're on your own."

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