Game rooms are a booming business in Houston and Harris County, but police are concerned these cash cows are now attracting an increasing violent element.
"I think it's a big problem," said an undercover detective for the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "A growing problem."
Both the Sheriff's Office and Houston Police Department reported seeing an increase in armed robberies at the game rooms peppering neighborhoods and strip centers throughout the area.
"It's easy money," said David de Torres, a robbery investigator with the Houston Police Department.
"We've seen it where they've just robbed the attendant in there and we've seen it where they've robbed everybody in the game room," said another undercover detective with the Sheriff's Office.
Just this year, sheriff's deputies and police officers have responded to dozens of armed robberies at game rooms. Houston police report during this time period last year, 23 game rooms were held up. This year, officers have responded to 46 robberies. In the county, sheriff's officials report 15 robberies in 2011 and 11 robberies so far this year.
In 2012, two game room security guards have also been killed during robberies.
Police said they have also seen instances of well-armed police impersonators wearing bullet proof vests robbing these businesses.
"The crooks know there's a lot of cash in these businesses," said de Torres, who believes the level of violence has increased because these businesses are now hiring armed guards for protection.
"Now there's somebody there who will try to stop them," said de Torres.
Investigators with both departments also said they believe not all game room robberies are being reported because business owners do not want law enforcement scrutiny.
"They really do not want law enforcement around their business," said a sheriff's detective.
Investigators said when a robbery gets reported, it is usually by a security guard who had a gun stolen or a patron who was held up. Investigators said owners of the businesses are largely uncooperative with detectives.
"They don't want to have it on file how much money they've lost," said de Torres. "They don't want it on file how much money they've made."
"It becomes a safety issue for the community," District D Councilmember Wanda Adams said.
Adams has long been pushing for tougher regulations of game rooms showing up in neighborhoods across Houston. Adams reports there are currently more than 200 game rooms permitted to operate in the city.
"People are getting hurt, people are getting killed because of the amounts of money they hear are inside these game rooms," said Adams.
The game rooms in Houston have to abide by city ordinances and the police department's Differential Response Team is charged with inspecting these businesses.
"These type of locations can be a public nuisance if they're not following the health code laws, the fire code laws," HPD Sgt. Mike Hill said.
Local 2 Investigates rode with Hill and two DRT officers as they inspected game rooms, looking for padlocked fire exits, whether the business had proper operating permits, health code violations and whether gaming machines had current city, county and state tax stamps displayed. However, this is the extent of the regulation.
"There's no one other than the owner of the machines who regulates what that probability is set for," said Hill. "One person could be playing game No. 1, could be winning because that machine is set with a higher probability of winning and the person on game No. 2 might not win all night."
Since gambling is illegal in Texas, these machines are allowed to operate because they are listed as being "for amusement only." This also means there is no oversight of whether the machines are calibrated to give players a fair shot at winning.
"The owner can adjust the machines to suit how much money he wants to make," said an undercover sheriff's detective.
This means to prove a game room is operating illegally, undercover officers have to play the machines numerous times to win and then determine if a businesses is giving cash pay outs higher than what the law allows. While sheriff's detectives have made numerous arrests and seizures over the years, these operations take time.
"It can take anywhere from one to three weeks just for one location," the undercover detective said. "A major obstacle is to even infiltrate the place."
Fear of law enforcement scrutiny and robbery has prompted several game rooms to force players to have "members only" ID cards. Other businesses have surveillance cameras watching who is approaching or a remotely operated cage at the front door that prevents people from walking in without first being screened by an employee.
Harris County sheriff's officials also said Houston's crackdown on these businesses is causing an unintended side effect.
"The more stringent Houston gets on these game rooms, this illegal activity, it's pushing it to the suburbs," said the undercover detective.
Sheriff's investigators estimate there are between 300 to 400 game rooms operating in the unincorporated parts of the county. Detectives said while the city can rely on numerous ordinances to regulate these game rooms, the county doesn't have the same restrictions. Investigators have to largely rely on state gambling laws.
"It's extremely frustrating and they're proliferating," said the undercover detective.
Sheriff's officials said they are now working with state legislators to try to craft tougher laws to regulate these game rooms.