Ever wondered why it took Yorkshire Police so long to catch Peter Sutcliffe? It certainly wasn't for want of trying. In this 1979 'World In Action' programme we get to see the headbanging complexity of a pre-IT investigation, and the repetitive, time consuming graft required to make even the most basic of connections.
Inspector Bob Browne is the unlucky devil responsible for tying up thousands of false leads, red herrings and loose ends. Horribly, every thing they need to know about the killer is already in that room, but they just don't know where. Bob talks the reporter through one of the processes. He looks on the verge of tears.
"Bob, what happens when a suspicious vehicle is reported by a member of the public or the police to you?"
"Well, if we had a partial number we would come to this vehicle index you can see here and this index is cross referenced so that we can trace a vehicle through make, colour and / or a partial registration. If for instance we were told that the car was a white Volvo and we had no registered number then we could check in the index and look under white Volvos.
All these cards in this system now relate to Volvos, and it would be a matter of looking through to see if we could find one of the relevant colour to start with. Having found the colour we could find the registered number from this card, then go to the relevant box and then we find the corresponding card which includes not only the vehicle number make and colour but the details of the owner by his name and address."
"So you have the vehicle and now you have the owner. Is there any way you can find out anything about the owner?"
"By going to the master index at the other side of the room, the owner there should have another card on which we will have his personal particulars so far as this inquiry is concerned, i.e. whether he’s been seen or not and if so why, whether he was a witness, a suggestion and whether in fact he has been interviewed or not.
We have in the system at the moment somewhere in the region of 160, 000 vehicles. The names in the main index are in excess of a quarter of a million people."
My lovely wife, who works for (South) Yorkshire Police, tells me a partial plate enquiry on the national database now takes approximately two seconds from start to finish. Wherever he is, I hope Bob knows that.