HPD used to do weekly raids and undercover ops to tackle cockfighting. Now, police haven’t made any arrests in over a year. 

Some people still believe Earl Koanui was a crooked cop. For good reason. He pretended to be one for years. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Honolulu narcotics/vice officer went undercover in Oahu’s cockfighting world, playing a version of himself that was willing to take bribes.

In reality, he was working with then-U.S. Attorney Steve Alm’s office on a series of cases that would eventually secure the federal indictment of 32 people for gambling and money laundering. In addition to the undercover work, the department was doing weekly cockfighting raids, Koanui said. 

“We would do it all weekend,” he says. “If we knew on Saturday there was a fight in Kalihi, Waianae, Ewa, Aiea, Waimanalo – we’d split the boys up and we’d try to raid as many different places as we could.” 

Today, things are different.

In cockfighting, birds can fight to the death. (Wikipedia Commons/Amshudhagar/2023)

The Honolulu Police Department hasn’t conducted a raid or made any arrests for cockfighting in well over a year, according to HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu.

Now, a shooting at a Waianae cockfight last weekend that left two people dead and three injured is bringing attention to HPD’s lack of cockfighting enforcement. 

The shooting began when an altercation broke out as dozens of people were leaving the property, Hawaii News Now reported, citing court documents. Two suspects turned themselves in — Jacob Borge, 23, and 16-year-old Shaedan Styles.

Borge was charged with first- and second-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and firearms charges. Petitions were filed against the juvenile for the same charges, police said.

HPD officials offered some reasons this week on why it’s hard to police cockfighting. But they did not respond to multiple requests to interview someone in narcotics/vice about why there have been no raids or arrests in the past year. According to departmental statements though, the focus seems to have shifted to gambling in game rooms.  

Honolulu’s lack of action on cockfighting may be a reflection of public perception of the bloodsport in Hawaii. The practice is illegal in all 50 states, but Hawaii is one of the few that considers it only a misdemeanor. Gambling is also illegal in Hawaii.

Supporters defend the activity as central to the culture of many Hawaii residents, and politicians and law enforcement have tacitly condoned it. Over the years, several police officers have even gone to prison for taking money from cockfighting operations in exchange for warning them about upcoming raids. 

“Cockfighting is one of these local issues I put in a category of fireworks and riding in the back of pickup trucks,” said Colin Moore, a public policy professor with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. 

Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan said HPD will crack down on illegal gambling following the recent deadly shooting at a cockfight. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

“Technically it’s illegal, but no one is actively trying to enforce the law,” he said. “There is a sense that it should be illegal to the extent that it should discourage people from actively doing it in public places, but a lot of politicians and I think a large part of the community don’t really have a problem with it.”  

Indeed, Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents West Oahu where cockfighting is popular and where the shooting occurred, said in an interview that she’s “neutral” on cockfighting. 

“It’s a tough issue,” she said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasts.”

In response to the shooting, Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan pledged to step up enforcement of “illegal gambling,” but he noted that tackling cockfighting is tough. 

“The groups involved are highly organized and tight-knit and conduct the events on private property,” he said in a statement. “Neighbors are also reluctant to get involved for fear of retaliation. While we do receive some tips, they are typically anonymous without a contact number. Many of the tips are called in after the event has occurred.” 

That’s why going undercover is so useful, according to Koanui, the former vice officer. Regular cockfighting raids usually resulted in the arrests of whoever was caught red-handed: the chicken handlers and the referee, he said.

But Koanui’s yearslong performance, and the undercover work of others, meant the capture of higher-level operators that would otherwise go undetected. 

“I’ve had undercover officers who would go in and video record, I’ve had undercover take part in wagers, actually fighting chickens,” he said. “We’d done stuff like that years ago. I don’t know what they’re doing now.”  

The federal government also has jurisdiction over chicken fighting in Hawaii, but it’s unclear how often its agencies are cracking down on cockfighting. James Curry, a spokesman for the FBI’s Honolulu office, did not respond to a request to discuss the department’s enforcement of cockfighting operations. 

Animal Cruelty Or Family Fun?

At a cockfight, chickens, bred for fighting, are brought into a pit with sharp blades on their legs to attack each other, sometimes to the death. The winner is whichever cock continues to show aggression toward its opponent.

“In cockfighting, you want them to continue to fight no matter what,” Koanui said. “Even if it lunges forward but can’t move its legs, you want to see that until the very end.”

If a bird gives up or shows “cowardice,” the owner may very well ring its neck himself, he said.

Whichever chicken continues to attack its opponent to the very end is declared the winner. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

Many view it as a barbaric act of animal cruelty.

“The whole point of this is to watch and enjoy seeing one animal inflict misery on another,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D.C.-based animal rights group. “Should we be surprised that someone is going to shoot somebody after an argument erupts?” 

The organization has called on Hawaii to increase cockfighting penalties from misdemeanors to felonies and is urging Congress to enhance federal enforcement. 

 “It’s a tough issue. There’s a lot of enthusiasts.”

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro

Cockfighting supporters see it differently.

“In their minds, they raise these birds – and these birds get the top feed, top training – and they’re treated very well as compared to the chickens that we eat that are raised in huge warehouses, fattened up, and one day they’re put on a conveyor belt and their head’s chopped off,” Koanui said. 

The practice is so widely accepted in Hawaii that local comedian Tumua Tuinei has a joke about it in his stand-up show. When he drives toward Waianae, he says, he suddenly finds himself with a scowl on his face, a chain around his neck and a chicken in both arms. 

Proponents argue that violence – among people that is – is no more likely to occur at cockfights than anywhere else.  

“I really believe it’s totally misunderstood,” said Dale Sopi, who attended cockfights as a kid growing up in Nanakuli and worked security at the events for two years. 

Many cockfights play out like block parties to which people bring their babies and grandparents, Koanui said.

Sopi said people enjoy the food vendors and good vibes, as well as the gambling. 

“If one guy don’t get paid, that’s how altercations get (started),” he said. “Obviously, it’s gambling you know? But most of the time, it’s black and white. You lose, you pay. That’s the basic altercation. It rarely, rarely, rarely gets out of control.” 

Worries About Violence

Koanui said fights can start in numerous ways at a cockfight. Some stem from disagreements about who won, particularly if police raid the event right in the middle. For some, placing the bet itself can be confusing. Newcomers have been known to place a wager on the wrong bird and think they’ve won when they really lost. 

It’s a tough pill to swallow when there are potentially thousands of dollars on the line. 

“It’s your fault for not understanding,” he said. “But do people get mad? Oh, you bet.” 

If anyone could make the argument that cockfights are violent, it’s Sopi. 

He was shot and paralyzed from the chest down while working security at a Waianae cockfight in 2021. Sopi said the man who shot him was someone he had asked to leave the event. Prosecutors have yet to charge anyone for his attempted murder. 

But despite his serious injuries, Sopi said that the incident could’ve happened anywhere. 

“How much shooting have they had at the bars?” he said.

Hawaii Politicians Mum On Cockfighting 

Politically, little action has been taken to stop cockfighting in Hawaii. In 2010, one Hawaii legislative committee even voted to recognize chicken fighting as a cultural activity. 

Moore said the topic is in a political no-go zone.

“It’s one of these issues where the people who are for it are intensely concerned about it and would probably work to punish anyone who went after it in a serious way, like making it a felony,” he said. 

Shimabukuro said she sees the issue as more about an increase in gun violence than cockfighting.

“It’s only in recent years that gun violence has been so prevalent,” she said. “It’s really sad that guns have made these kinds of gatherings dangerous.” 

The senator added that cockfighting should be covered under an existing statute, passed last year, that makes promoting gambling a felony. Property owners could be held accountable under that law, Shimabukuro said. 

Police will never be able to stop cockfighting entirely, Koanui said. He recalled times when officers would bust a location only to have people continue cockfighting as soon as police left. 

But he said it matters to have even some enforcement, like the weekly raids HPD did during his tenure two decades ago. 

“If law enforcement does nothing, it gives a segment of society that idea that: Well then, let’s just keep expanding. What’s wrong with it?” he said. “You need to have something to keep it in check.”

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