Bit by gambling sting

January 27, 2012 

I’ve been sleeping a little better at night this week, and I think the reason is that a scourge that has been quietly plaguing our community for who-knows-how-long has finally been met head-on by local law enforcement. The Warner Robins Police Department made a bold series of arrests last Friday that has surely shaken the criminal element in the International City to its very core.

What dastardly deed did this dragnet sweep up and dump into the dust bin of law and order? Was it murder, rape, robbery, or assault? Nope. Was it drunk-driving, child pornography or drug dealing? Wrong again.

The nasty, vicious, community-threatening enterprise that the WRPD spent a significant amount of time and money setting up and executing a sting operating for last week was ... wait for it ... video gambling.

Thirteen citizens were rounded up and arrested for operating businesses that provided illegal gambling services to their customers. These businesses were offering cash prizes to customers who got lucky on their video gaming machines. The machines themselves are not illegal, but paying out cash as a prize (as opposed to merchandise or store credit) is.

I want to state very clearly that I understand the police don’t make laws, they only enforce them, and I have no beef with the WRPD for doing its job. But a couple of things bother me about this sting operation.

First of all, it seems hypocritical to me, to an almost ridiculous degree, that the state of Georgia prosecutes private citizens for engaging in an activity that is perfectly legal when the state is the one profiting from said activity.

The usual logic (which I find questionable) for outlawing victimless crimes like gambling is because of the harm it does for people who become addicted and can’t control their behavior. But anyone who will be prevented from gambling away the family income on video poker thanks to these arrests can easily walk into a convenience store and blow said income on the state-run lottery.

This looks an awful lot more like a powerful state protecting its financial interests than a principled stand for the public morality.

But even if we ignore the arguably shaky moral ground that Georgia’s anti-gambling laws are built upon, I have another issue with this sting operation. I have to wonder what person, or group of people, made the decision to devote a great deal of money and manpower to addressing this particular crime?

Video gambling is illegal, certainly, but so is littering, jaywalking and driving 1 mile an hour over the speed limit. With all the crimes that inevitably get committed on a daily basis in a city the size of Warner Robins, how did video gambling rise to a status that merited this kind of time and attention by our law enforcement community?

That is not a rhetorical question. It’s one I’d really like to have answered. If anyone connected with the police department, the city government or any other agency that played a role in this sting operation can shed any light on my question, I’d love to see it explained right here on the pages of The Telegraph.

If we were to add up all the costs associated with an operation like this -- the pay for the officers involved, the court costs and attorney’s fees associated with prosecuting those arrested, and the cost of jailing anyone convicted -- I think we’d find it running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a minimum.

I think it’s fair to ask, at the end of the day, if it was all worth it. It’s fair to question whether these anti-gambling laws should even be on the books, and it is more than fair to question how much valuable police time and taxpayer money is getting gobbled up to combat an activity that, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.

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