It was an odd weekend. I spent Saturday at the Queensland Writers Centre with the author Matthew Condon, whose latest books, based on the diaries of former Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, record in forensic detail the long history of police corruption in Queensland. Then on Sunday, I went to a lecture at police headquarters, where I heard an entirely different aspect of police history – and forensics, for that matter – when the curator of the Police Museum, Lisa Jones, told the story of the Modus Operandi section within the Criminal Investigation Bureau, which operated between 1935 and 1972.
The lecture was called ‘The Modus Operandi Recording System, a common fund of information’. It was based on a 1936 lecture given by the head of CIB, Alfred Jessen. At that time Queensland’s population was small and the policing system fairly rudimentary, but in the CIB the police were trying to set up a database of suspects with the potential to cross-reference crimes, people, places, aliases, and particular styles of operation – the modus operandi.
These days cross-referencing is a cinch. Thanks to computers, with their extraordinary search algorithms, I can easily search on a name and come up with more than I will ever want to know about them. There’s no doubt that this easy accessibility of information is affecting the way we do history – and in my case, at least, I find it often blocks me from putting pen to paper (virtually, of course!) because it’s so alluring to look for even more online.
In 1935 though, it was a different matter entirely. The MO unit was set up as an elaborate filing system that documented illegal activities – but the system would only prove useful if and when the CIB could find some way of classifying these activities in a retrievable form in the pre-computer age. This was the subject of the lecture.
Lisa Jones showed us examples of the forms that were filled in by a squad of typists, and a matrix showing the sub-categories that were used to describe the crimes. Five of the six general categories were property crimes of some sort:
- Stealing money or securities by trustees, agents, partners, employees
- Stealing with violence
- Stealing without violence
- Where a trick was the element of the offence of stealing
- Offences where a false pretence was an element
The sixth category was ‘Miscellaneous’. As she said, rightly, there should never be a miscellaneous category in a database! This was then further subdivided into crimes ‘of a general nature’, neither theft nor crimes against the person, such as arson, and crimes against the person.
So just one sub-section, 6/2, covered all crimes against the person, including abortion, blackmail, murder and sexual offences. It seems an odd breakdown of crime, but of course this was a unit that was there to document repetitive illegal activities such as theft, burglary and fraud, and crimes such as murder tend to be one-off crimes. Or so they thought in 1936. I’m not sure that these days, people would be so ready to assume that sexual offenders, for instance, don’t have a modus operandi that can be usefully described.
As the population grew, the MO unit grew too. The people who worked there were gradually buried by a mountain of paper – and the cross-referencing systems must have come under increasing strain as time passed. Nevertheless, they contained a wealth of information, and as a historian I was salivating. But –
The saddest part of the whole lecture came at the end. Lisa told us that when everything was computerized in the late 1970s/early 1980s, they made no attempt to digitize the files. Instead most of the cards were thrown away. A big bag of cards was delivered to the police museum, but the rest have gone. Not surprisingly, this is now a problem when people come forward to report crimes, mainly sexual crimes, from 40 years back, and there are no records to go on.
Whatever happened to archives?
Matthew Condon, Three Crooked Kings (2013)
Matthew Condon, Jacks and Jokers (2014)
Note: The Police Museum runs a series of public lectures on the last Sunday of the month. They are advertised by newsletter or via Twitter on @QPSMuseum