By ED GODFREY | The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The newest crime fighting weapon for Oklahoma game wardens is Facebook.

Oklahoma's state game wardens launched their own Facebook page in late October, and it quickly evolved into an investigatory tool, even though that wasn't the original intention, The Oklahoman reported.

“We were just trying to share what we do and who we are,” said James Edwards Jr., an Oklahoma game warden supervisor for Caddo, Comanche and Jefferson counties. “We didn't start this as a means to solicit information.”

Instead, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation game wardens' Facebook page has turned into a social media criminal hotline. The Oklahoma Department has always had a hotline called Operation Game Thief (800-522-8039) for the public to call to anonymously report suspected game violations.

But game wardens are receiving more tips through the Facebook page than by telephone through Operation Game Thief, even though the Facebook page is less than two months old, Edwards said.

“It's crazy,” Edwards said. “They won't call an 800 number and remain totally anonymous, but they will direct message on Facebook with that information.”

It's just another example of the broad reach of Facebook. Oklahoma game wardens are now routinely posting information plus photos on their Facebook page about cases they are investigating and asking for the public's assistance.

Edwards said game wardens have solved several cases already as a result of contacts made through the Facebook posts.

Game wardens quickly realized the potential of Facebook aiding investigations after their first post about a case they were investigating, Edwards said.

Game wardens were seeking information about two deer that had been shot with a rifle out of season in Jefferson County. The poachers had only taken the deer heads.

The post and photo had 150,000 page views in just a day and a half and eventually was viewed 600,000 times on the Facebook page, Edwards said. The case was solved just two weeks later thanks to tips the game wardens received through Facebook, he said.

“I honestly don't think it would have been made without that kind of response,” he said.

Edwards thinks the Facebook page has allowed game wardens to reach an audience beyond just hunters and anglers.

“The hunters and fishermen always knew how to get a hold of us,” he said. “The general public had no idea. We are accessing the public in a different manner than we have ever done before.”

Social media had already changed the way game wardens did their jobs, even before they launched their own Facebook page, Edwards said.

Hunters and anglers in the field frequently text local game wardens to report suspicious activity, and some poachers even incriminate themselves on social media, he said.

“Before, you had a lot of people bragging to their friends in private (about illegally killing a deer or other game),” he said. “Now, guys slap it up on Facebook. They got to show it off. They just can't keep from it.”

Edwards said the main purpose of the Facebook page was to share with the public the job of game wardens and the things they do beyond just writing tickets for game violations.

It's being used so frequently as an investigatory tool that the game wardens might launch a separate Operation Game Thief page on Facebook just for law enforcement purposes, Edwards said.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com