Port screening no sure thing for security
Recent Fla. arrest shows holes in safety at sea, in air
By DANA TREEN
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Despite heightened security at ports and airports since 9/11, it may be difficult to know who is sitting beside you in that cruise line deck chair or airline seat the next time you take a trip.
Last month, the U.S. Marshals Office apprehended a murder suspect on a Jacksonville-based cruise ship as it was slipping to sea. If Derron Williams had not been taken off the Carnival cruise ship Celebration, he was bound for a five-day cruise that made a stop in the Bahamas.
Williams, 29, was taken back to Atlanta, where authorities said he had run over a man outside a party on Feb. 9, killing him.
The arrest was startling to Robert Hopkins of Palm Coast, who just returned from another cruise on the same boat that day. He said he was surprised the suspect was able to get on the Celebration because the security screening was as intense as at any airport.
Hopkins said he and his wife had to carry their bags through checkpoints and pass through scanners.
Williams was singled out after authorities were tipped that he was on the cruise, but not because he was tagged in a security check.
The Williams case may be unusual but it shows that security screenings by federal authorities are narrowly focused.
"We don't want terrorists to go on board ships," said Jennifer Bradshaw, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office in Jacksonville. "Right now we are only looking for those people who are terrorists."
Security on aircraft is handled in much the same way, said Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. In addition to the terrorist screenings, the agency uses programs such as behavior screening at airports, air marshals on planes and prohibits weapons and other items on board, she said.
Also, documents are increasingly being screened for forgeries.
"There are many layers for keeping people from getting on a plane," she said.
Cruise ships are required to send passenger manifests to Customs an hour before departure. Airlines, where vetting against a no-fly list begins when a passenger arrives to check in or has attempted to buy a ticket online, must send a final manifest 15 minutes before the flight leaves.
While those may seem like short periods of time, it has been only recently that the lists were sent prior to departure.
Although manifests are checked against national law enforcement databases that detect arrest warrants, that information is not normally used to detain passengers who may be wanted.
"Almost every time that vessel docks, there are people on it who have warrants," Bradshaw said.
Because the net is cast broadly, the list includes misdemeanors as well as felonies and may include cases of false identity that would take time to sort out, Bradshaw said.
"People with common names get caught up in this all the time," she said. "We get a lot of false matches."
Ultimately, cruises have one common attribute.
"They are coming back," Bradshaw said.
When ships leave a foreign port, if a passenger is not on board, port agents, local law enforcement officials and U.S. Customs are notified, according to Carnival.
Bradshaw said warrants can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and passengers can be individually screened when they return to shore and go through customs. But, she said, passengers on ships are as safe on board as they would be in a public place.
"In general, I don't view a cruise ship any differently than taking a trip to Disney World," she said.
Copyright 2008 Florida Times-Union