August 06, 2007
Backroom gambling in Houston

I have a couple of questions regarding this article on the proliferation of illegal slot machines in Houston.

Gaming rooms have proliferated throughout the Houston area in the past few years. They have become targets for crime, law enforcement say, because the operators handle large amounts of cash and most patrons are female or elderly.

Everyone knows these places offer illegal gambling, police say. But savvy owners disguise them as "amusement rooms," taking advantage of weaknesses in Texas gambling law.

''Local law enforcement can't keep up with them," said Marc Brown, chief of the Harris County District Attorney's Office's misdemeanor division. "One shuts down, and another one opens up."

City Councilwoman Toni Lawrence is working on an ordinance that would force gaming rooms to put up signs, uncover their windows and allow unfettered access to law enforcement. Austin passed a similar law in March.

The proposal is tacit acknowledgment that game rooms are so numerous that more regulatory tools are needed. Lawrence said she hopes that forcing game rooms to be more visible will help police monitor their activities, and, perhaps, drive them away.

Capt. Steven Jett of the Houston Police Department estimates that Houston has 300 to 400 gaming rooms. Inside, one typically finds row after row of video gaming machines, often called ''eight-liners" because there are eight ways to win based on the combination of images on the screen. The machines also can be found tucked into convenience stores, coin-operated laundries, even dental offices.

''They're dangerous places to be hanging out in," said HPD Northeast Division Lt. D.R. ''Duke" Atkins. ''You're coming out of there with cash, and you're elderly, and you're going to get accosted violently."

So in terms of their threat to public safety, how do these gaming rooms compare to, say, The Men's Club?

In the past year, sheriff's deputies responded to 12 robberies and four shootings -- three of them fatal -- at gaming rooms in unincorporated Harris County, said sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Field.

A 31-year-old woman was shot to death July 14, just outside a gaming room in the 2900 block of Gears, in northwest Harris County. The owner told investigators he was shooting at an armed man who was trying to force his way into the gaming room when Gloria Cruz stepped into the path of the bullet.

George, a west Harris County resident who did not want his last name published, said gaming rooms can be dangerous. Last year, he was gambling on a Sunday afternoon at a clandestine spot on the county's southwest side. Five armed men entered and corralled the 15 customers, many of them elderly women, and ordered them down on their knees, George said. After going through the players' wallets and purses, the robbers beat up the manager, George said.


HPD has four officers to conduct undercover gambling investigations.

"We do the best we can with what we have," said Capt. Glenn Yorek of the vice division. Since 2003, the department has made 219 gambling-related arrests and seized 2,771 video gaming machines.

And how many vice squad officers are assigned to undercover operations at sexually oriented businesses?

I agree that more needs to be done about this problem (assuming that statewide legalization, in which the big, glitzy, legal casinos would presumably squeeze out the backroom operators, is not on the table), and that HPD is going to be hard pressed to keep up no matter what. But given all the attention that's been paid to enforcing the recently-upheld anti-SOB ordinance, I think these are fair questions to ask.

UPDATE: Grits makes a good point about this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 06, 2007 to Crime and Punishment

Across the river in Newport, Kentucky, backroom gambling made that town what it is today. I admit that is not very much. But at one time it was quite a place.

Posted by: Cincinnati Liberal on August 6, 2007 8:25 PM