Honolulu police Wednesday shut down an illegal game room near a school in Manoa, seizing a firearm, drugs and cash in the latest example of gambling operations disrupting the routines of residential neighborhoods.

Officers with HPD’s District 7 Crime Reduction Unit, Specialized Services Division and Narcotics/Vice Division took nearly a half-dozen digital gambling machines from a Manoa home that featured a sign on the wall that read, “No Play, No Stay.”

The seizure came a day after District 8 CRU officers, SSD and Narcotics/Vice officers in Waianae seized cash and 24 gambling machines and arrested a 43-year-old man on suspicion of promoting gambling and possession of gambling devices.

Since Sept. 29 HPD has shuttered five game rooms and confiscated 54 gambling devices. So far this year, police have shut down 45 illegal game rooms and seized 641 machines, surpassing the 37 search warrants executed in 2020.

“It is a lucrative operation and inexpensive to operate and set up. It is common for an illegal game room to reopen shortly after we shut them down. They are a nuisance. They attract traffic, noise, parking complaints, loitering and generally an unwanted clientele to residential communities. Last night’s game room is across the street from a school,” Maj. Phillip Johnson, head of HPD’s Narcotics/Vice Division, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It’s not necessarily difficult to shut them down. Keeping them shut down is the difficult part. We need to find ways to make it hurt for those who profit most.”

The Kalihi area has the highest number of game rooms in operation, and police are seeing a “growing and alarming” problem in the residential areas of Waianae. At any given time there are 60 to 80 illegal game rooms operating on Oahu. Traditionally, vacant businesses or backrooms of commercial spaces hosted the digital casinos, but police and community members are reporting the operations appearing near schools and care homes and in housing developments.

Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm told the Star-Advertiser that his office works with HPD to prosecute all the offenses that arise from illegal-gambling cases. He lauded HPD’s efforts and said game rooms attract criminals who bring drugs and weapons into Oahu communities. Prosecutors filed a civil nuisance abatement lawsuit against one property owner who housed an illegal game room, and Alm is hopeful it will set a precedent that can be used against property owners of other operations.

“These establishments are extremely profitable and well organized to protect those at the top, making it very difficult to prosecute the high-level criminals who actually run them or the property owners who allow them to operate on their premises, leading to them popping up again even after a successful HPD operation. That is where civil asset forfeiture and civil nuisance abatement come in. The people of Honolulu deserve to live in safe communities, and this combination of criminal prosecution and civil remedies can help achieve that.”

Councilwoman Radiant Cordero, who represents the Kalihi area, told the Star-Advertiser that during the pandemic some in her district would risk entire paychecks at illegal game rooms hoping to quickly fortify their finances amid an uncertain job market. A gambler who loses might rely on family and friends for help, extending the hardship to others.

The spaces that often house gambling machines could better be used for affordable housing or as space for job-creating businesses, she said. Cordero is working with law enforcement and her Council colleagues to make it easier for the city Department of Budget and Fiscal Services and the Department of Facilities Maintenance to conduct nuisance abatement proceedings against repeat offenders.

AFTER EXECUTING a warrant at a game room, police serve the property owner with a notice that they are subject to HRS 712-1271, which allows the state attorney general, county prosecutors or a private citizen to file a lawsuit seeking an end to the activity and abatement of the nuisance.

“It impacts families to the core. At the onset of the pandemic, people were utilizing their last paychecks to gamble. It hurt because a lot of people had their jobs in limbo … and had to rely on family members,” she said.

Streamlining and coordinating nuisance abatement and asset forfeiture proceedings is essential to getting at the individuals who allow or help the illegal businesses to open. In some cases the landowners fear retaliation from the people running the gambling if they try to evict them.

“We have to make it easier for landowners who face retaliation. We know this is happening, but they let it go because they are afraid of the people running these operations,” Cordero said. “They are people just trying to make ends meet.”

Councilwoman Andria Tupola, who represents West Oahu, hosted an hourlong town hall Sept. 30 dedicated to understanding how HPD handles illegal game rooms while discussing the houses running in her district.

DURING THE virtual meeting, Sgt. Timothy Quinada, a Narcotics/Vice officer with 21 years of service, explained that developing a case, securing a search warrant and moving to shut down a game room is a lengthy process that often leads to misdemeanor arrests. Once gambling detail officers receive a complaint, they need to verify the information, and that can take months.

Quinada urged community members to write down the address, what kind of activity they see, when is the human traffic heaviest, what kind of people are hanging around, and to write down license plate numbers.

“I’m not saying go out of your way and put yourself in harm’s way, but the more information you give us, the better it is,” said Quinada on Sept. 30. “We will try to get to every complaint and every game room on this island.”

Tupola said she is working on legislation making it harder for gambling operations to open in residential neighborhoods and is looking at how to better utilize nuisance abatement and asset forfeiture laws.

“The ones in residential areas are the ones we get the heaviest complaints with the property crimes that happen around it, sometimes prostitution, sometimes assault because people are coming out of the game room angry and wanting to rob houses,” she said. “One of the game rooms in Nanakuli we were dealing with was too close to an elderly home.”

Get involved

To report illegal gambling, call the Narcotics/ Vice 24-hour hotline at 808-723-3933.