Do Cruise Ships Have Police? How Crime is Dealt With at Sea

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

If you’re already a regular cruiser or just thinking about booking your first cruise, you might be wondering about how crime and security are dealt with on board.

This article looks at the question: “Do cruise ships have police?” and explains all you need to know…

police boat

Are there police on cruise ships?

Cruise ships do not have police. Instead, an onboard Security Director will oversee the ship’s own dedicated security department, staffed by former federal, state and military law enforcement personnel from various countries. By law, ships sailing to or from the USA must have at least one crew member trained in crime prevention, detection and reporting.

Why are there no police on cruise ships?

Police forces are governed and empowered by nation-states in order to protect their citizens and to prevent crime and civil disorder. National police forces may also sometimes work together to tackle international crime via the global policing coordination organization Interpol

Cruise ships, however, are not based inside national borders and do not fit neatly under the effective jurisdiction of any one country. This means that there isn’t an obvious police force with ongoing responsibility for law and order on each cruise vessel.

Even where there is a linked police force (e.g. the police force of the ship’s “flagged” or nominal country) they are unlikely to have the resources to investigate all cruise ship crime thoroughly, and could not practically deploy police officers on every cruise.

Suggested read: Are There Guns on Cruise Ships?

Which country is responsible for investigating crimes at sea?

If a cruise ship is in port at the time a crime occurs, the local authorities for that country have clear jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute those responsible. But, if a ship is at sea, you may wonder which country has jurisdiction (the power or right to interpret and apply the law) on board the ship.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries have jurisdiction over activities in waters within 12 nautical miles of their national coastline.

Beyond 12 miles, the ship’s officially registered (“flagged”) country normally has jurisdiction.

So, if a ship is registered in the Bahamas, then Bahamas law may apply, even if the ship is cruising on the other side of the world in the Pacific Ocean when a crime occurs.

It would obviously be impractical for Bahamas police to attend, so the highly-trained cruise ship security team will be first on the scene to deal with any crimes committed at sea.

Who investigates crimes on cruise ships?

Instead of police, cruise ships normally have their own security teams who act as first responders when crimes are reported on board. These internal security staff are employed by cruise ship companies and work under the authority of the ship’s captain.

When crime occurs in international waters, the captain must decide whether to continue cruising to the next scheduled port of call, or to make an unscheduled stop at a nearer port.

Local authorities at the port can then be brought on board for formal investigations. The ship’s security team are responsible for passenger safety, preservation of evidence and investigation until they hand the case over to law enforcement officers.

When US citizens are involved in serious cruise ship crimes, the FBI must investigate, although other law enforcement agencies might have the primary role. Where serious crime is indicated, the FBI can draw on its global network to protect passengers and to secure and preserve the crime scene.

This recourse for US citizens is limited. Under international law, the US cannot prosecute crimes on foreign-flagged ships once they move outside US jurisdiction. It would be illegal for the FBI to enter a foreign-flagged vessel outside US territory or to enforce US criminal laws, without flag state permission.

Royal Caribbean shi pwith Bahamas flag
Royal Caribbean cruise ships are registered in the Bahamas

What are cruise ship security teams like?

Ex-police or military personnel with relevant experience or qualifications may be sought for more senior cruise ship security positions. Even lower-level positions may have particular criteria (e.g. physical fitness requirements, diving certification, etc). 

Uniformed security staff are normally visible at checkpoints or patrolling around the ship. There may also be less obvious plainclothes security staff working on the vessel.

Larger cruise ships undertaking long international journeys, especially through waters where piracy or terrorism are potential risks, may have bigger teams of specially trained security officers who have previously served with police or military units.

By law, ships sailing to or from the USA  must have at least one crew member trained in crime prevention, detection and reporting.

cruise ship security guard

Why crime investigation on cruise ships can be complicated

There’s a range of potential complicating factors for crime investigation on cruise ships.

International legal and diplomatic issues

Jurisdiction is a complex issue for cruise ship crime, with multiple potentially interested authorities to consider and coordinate. These might include a ship’s ‘flagged’ country, foreign port authorities, the home countries of victim and perpetrator, and the FBI where US citizens are involved. Investigation and prosecution can entail sensitive and prolonged international negotiations.

Maritime law versus law on land

The law at sea is not the same law you will find in any individual country. Maritime law is a unique, intricate and sometimes murky field, attempting to regulate the ungoverned spaces of the ocean. Some areas of maritime law are decades or centuries old, and may not be obviously relevant to modern cruise ship crime.

Flagging

A ship’s “flag of convenience (FOC)” is the country where it’s officially registered, regardless of ownership or operating routes. When a ship’s owner chooses to flag their ship in a particular country, activities on that ship become subject to the laws of that nation, and many crimes will be handled under its jurisdiction.

Popular FoC countries tend to be those with the least stringent laws and regulations around labour, safety and environmental protection. Cruise ships are most likely to be registered to the Bahamas, Panama and Liberia.

Cruise lines may state that they have “headquarters in Miami” without mentioning FoCs for their vessels. Passengers should understand that regardless of the location of the cruise company HQ, its ships may be registered elsewhere.

Potential conflicts of interest

The ship’s captain and security team are employed by the cruise company. While the primary purpose of a national police force is to tackle crime and protect citizens, the primary purpose of a cruise company is to run cruises and make money. Security officers may therefore feel under direct or indirect pressure to get a cruise moving again quickly, as much as ensuring that a crime is fully investigated.

Delays

It might take several days before a cruise ship is able to call at a port and allow law enforcement officers to investigate a crime report. During this time, evidence could deteriorate or be tampered with, making subsequent investigation difficult or impossible.

Do cruise ships have jails?

Larger cruise ships do have a type of jail, known as ‘the brig’. These safe, lockable spaces are rarely used except in cases of serious crime where prosecution is likely (e.g. trafficking drugs).

For less serious crimes, or where passengers are drunk and disorderly, they may instead be locked in their cabins.

cruise ship brig

What are the most common crimes on cruise ships?

The most commonly reported crimes on cruise ships are reported to be sexual assaults followed by physical assaults with serious injury, and major theft.

A final word… 

If you have questions about security arrangements on particular cruise lines or ships, I would suggest that you consult the cruise line’s website or contact them directly to request further information about their security personnel and systems.

Related Posts:

Before you go!

I'd love to help you to...

1. Find a great cruise - See today's top 15 cruise deals

2. Book with a trusted travel agent - Here's who I recommend

3. Cruise smarter - Join 25,000 cruisers who get my best tips by email


Found this to be useful?

You're welcome to share this guide with your friends if you think it may help them too.

Leave a comment