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Crime on cruise ships

Every year, thousands of holidaymakers have a wonderful experience on board the many cruise liners touring exotic locations around the world. But what happens when things go dramatically wrong? Who polices the cruise ships? How does an organisation get back public confidence if it is perceived to have been responsible for any investigative failings after a serious incident? Public reassurance is vital, writes Neville Blackwood of GICIS.

If a British national is sexually assaulted on a ship whilst sailing in international waters, it will not be the responsibility of British police to investigate. Rather, it is likely to fall in the first instance to the on-board security team and then a wider remit by the police from the country the ship is ‘flagged’ to. This might be a very small police force with limited expertise and capacity to investigate such a serious crime to the standards the victim will expect.

Cruise ships are like small cities, not only in population size but also investigative opportunities, whether these be witnesses, suspects, CCTV, mobile phone data, social networking sites and perhaps, most importantly, the crime scene itself. Can we be assured that this potentially forensically rich location will be properly secured and evidence gathered with the same attention to detail that would happen on land? The police are unlikely to be anywhere near the crime scene for days as the ship will likely sail on to its original destination.

Most major cruise companies have an excellent security team who are well-versed in the day-to-day management of routine incidents. However, they also need to be fully prepared to meet the complex challenges and sensitivities of a major crime such as murder or sexual assault taking place. Public and media scrutiny will be immense. The victim or their family’s trust and confidence in both the investigative and judicial process is likely to be tested if the key forensic sample taken from the crime scene is thrown out at court because chain of custody of the exhibit is undermined through initial failings.

I regularly train senior detectives responsible for investigating serious crimes and we often talk about the ‘golden hour’, which is the first phase after a crime has been committed. In this frame lies the best opportunities to identify the suspect(s) and gather the evidence required to successfully prosecute the perpetrator(s). On board a ship, the ‘golden hour’ will be the responsibility of civilian security staff. When they hand their findings on to the prosecuting authority, wherever in the world this may be, it is vital that the product has maximised all the investigative opportunities as there is unlikely to be another chance.

The managers of these security teams need to be confident that they have the appropriately skilled people to support a police enquiry and that they themselves can coordinate the investigations effectively. My experience of the breaking response to any major incident is a sense of chaos with lots of information from many sources needing to be calmly analysed and made sense of. The leader of the investigation teams in these situations needs to have simple processes and structures to follow so that good decisions, with a clear rationale, can be made. These will include a defined forensic strategy where you know who your crime scene investigator is, what your crime scenes are, what you are seeking to achieve and why this is so important. It will include a communications strategy: this may be how internal messages are communicated to all staff about the incident, particularly if one is a victim or suspect; it might be how it is communicated to the passengers, including an appeal for witnesses; it could even be national and international media statements, particularly if reputational issues are at play as one bad headline, no matter how exceptional the circumstances, could have a devastating effect on the market.

The professional standards and integrity of all organisations, who have a duty of care to their staff and customers, will be under a microscope when things go wrong. Directors of these companies need to be confident that they can deliver a victim-focused, highly-skilled and appropriately-resourced response to a major crime on-board one of their ships. Even in these times of austerity, good and effective training must not be overlooked and indeed can provide not only long term value-for-money but also justice for the individual harmed.

About the author

Neville Blackwood, faculty member at Global Institute of Cyber, Intelligence & Security (GICIS) is a director at Neville Blackwood Ltd. He’s a former Detective Superintendent who worked for a number of years within the FCO as an advisor and investigator on international crime. Visit


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