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Psychics, Police Departments Evaluations


Do Police Departments

Really Use Them?


from Skeptical Inquire, Winter 1993, p.148-158 

The police departments of the 50 largest U.S. cities were surveyed about their use of ‘psychics.’  Nearly two-thirds have never used psychics.  None said psychics provided information more useful than that from other sources.  Some comments were quite negative.

ABSTRACT: The popular media give the impression that police departments in the United States use "psychics" for assistance in solving difficult cases. But do they? The present study was undertaken to answer that very question. A survey was adminis­tered to the police departments of the 50 largest cities in America. The results revealed that 65 percent of these cities do not use and have never used psychics. In addition, it could be argued from the results that psychics actually hinder effective investigations. 

“Clairvoyant Crime Busters,” “Cops amazed by Crime-busting Psychics” "Can Psychics See What Detectives Can't?" These are titles of just a few of the articles published in recent years proclaiming the ability of self-described "psy­chics" to help police. But do so-called psychics really help? To what extent are they even used? To answer these questions the authors of this study undertook an investigation of the police departments in the 50 largest cities in the United States.


People in America are frequently exposed to the belief that "psychics" aid police investiga­tions. The mass media promote this view. An example of a magazine doing so would be the McCall's article "Clairvoyant Crime Busters." (Wolkomir and Wolkomir 1987). The article gives details about individual psychics and their supposed crime-solving abilities. Psychics Dorothy Allison and John Catchings are mentioned often. Even the pos­sibility of an "ESP gene" is discussed because John Catchings and his mother are allegedly both psychic! The article also states that, although the psychic gives information to the police, it is the policeman's job to ascertain what the informa­tion means.


An    earlier    McCall's exclusive, "Can Psychics See What  Detectives   Can't?' (Ralston   1983),  says  that "many"  psychics  help  in­vestigate various crimes and that  some  police  departments see this psychic assistance  as   a  "legitimate investigative   tool."  This article also acclaims Dorothy Allison and says that she has to know only when and at what time the crime was committed in order to solve the crime, and that she can do it even by phone!


A Weekly World News article, "Cops Amazed by Crime-Busting Psychic" (Alexander 1988), focused on diviner Carol Pate. This article contends that she has helped solve at least 65 murders and a hundred other crimes around the country.


West, the San ]ose Mercury News Sunday magazine, ran a piece titled "Sylvia Sells Sooth by the Seer" (Holub 1988) about San Jose psychic Sylvia Brown and how she had helped find 20 missing children but never charged a fee. The article says she helped police but preferred to remain anonymous.


Such articles continue. A 1992 article in Woman's Day (Duncan 1992) asks in its title "Can Psychics Solve Crimes?" It answers affirmatively, and uncritically: "Yes, say these two women [Noreen Renier and Nancy Czetli] who are hired to do it everyday—with uncanny success."


There are also many books that proclaim psychic power. A recent example of this genre is Arthur Lyons and Marcello Truzzi's (1991) The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime (reviewed in SI, Fall 1991). The uniqueness of this book is that the authors give the impression of objec­tivity in their investigation of psychic detection. This veil of objectivity is thin, however, and the reader soon realizes that Lyons and Truzzi are subtle proponents of "the blue sense"—that intuitive sense that cops and psychics have that goes beyond what they can hear, see, or smell. Another book proposing psychic power is Colin Wilson's The Psychic Detectives (1987). In it he discusses people like Peter Hurkos, Nelson Palmer, Gerard Croiset, and Edgar Cayce. First, Wilson contends that phenomena must be real if they are reported again and again. Second, he says that skeptics doubt because of "everyday consciousness." Wilson also claims that there is "abundant evidence" to prove that psychic powers will "operate on demand" (p. 251). He says that dozens of psychics have proved their powers under rigorous laboratory settings and that those who refuse to accept this evidence are not just unconvinced by the demon­stration, but find "the whole idea deeply disturbing and disagreeable." Why does Wilson believe all this? He says that clairvoyants get information from "probably the right brain." This information is then picked up by the left brain. Where, then, does the right brain get its information? Wilson says it comes from either the subjective mind, the subliminal self, or the unconscious. These, he believes, come from "some sort of record that already exists in nature" (p. 252).


Not all articles and books extol psychics' abilities to aid police. Several are very poignant in their disclaimers. Newsweek (Morganthau and Smith 1980) described Dorothy Allison's trip to Atlanta in 1980 to help in the case that later became known as the "Atlanta Child Murders Case." The city of Atlanta had invited Allison to participate. Newsweek reported, "Her much publicized snooping broke no new ground and the mother of one missing boy complained that the seer never returned her only photograph of her son."


Henry Gordon, in his book Extra-Sensory Deception (1987), also discussed Allison's visit to Atlanta. Gordon reported that an Atlanta police official said she gave police 42 names of the possible killer, but that they were all wrong. Gordon remarked, "She rode around in a big limousine for three days, then went home" (pp. 142-143).


In the same book Gordon quotes Harold Graham, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner (41 years with the Ontario Police) as saying, "A psychic never to my knowledge has solved a case" (p. 141). Gordon remarks that psychic detectives "oper­ate on a fixed formula." The formula usually involves their providing such generalities as several different loca­tions and unconnected details, and when a case is finally solved, the psychic can probably then find one or two of his or her guesses that seem to fit the facts of the case.


Another book that tells of psychic assistance in police investigations is The Dungeon Master: The Disappear­ance of James Dallas Egbert III, by William Dear (1984). Dear, a private investigator, wrote about how he solved the Egbert case. He says hundreds of psychics called him about the case during his investigation. He writes: "I always talk to psychics, though. They generally seem sincere to me, though none has ever helped me on a case" (p. 49).


In the book Careless Whispers: The Lake Waco Murders, Carlton Stowers describes how psychic John Catchings took part in the case. Stowers writes: "All in all, however, Catchings's visit was a disappointment. He provided nothing specific, only a few impres­sions which he admitted reservations about" (p. 195).


Martin Reiser, director of the Behavioral Sciences Services Section of the Los Angeles Police Department, has done two major studies on the value of psychics' information to police investigations. The first study, in 1979, was titled "An Evaluation of the Use of Psychics in the Investigation of Major Crimes." Twelve psychics participated in the double-blind ex­periment. Two solved crimes and two unsolved crimes were selected by an investigator not involved in the research. The results: little, if any, information was gained from the psychics that would help in the investigation of the crimes.


In 1980, Reiser conducted the second study, called "A Comparison of Psychics, Detectives, and Students in the Investigation of Major Crimes." Once again, a double-blind was used. The sample included 12 psychics, 11 college students, and 12 homicide detectives. Four cases, two solved and two unsolved, were chosen by a detective supervisor not directly involved in the research. The psychic group produced about ten times as much information as either one of the other groups. Even with this advantage, the psychics did not pro­duce any better information than the other two groups. The psychics did not produce any information relating to the cases beyond a chance level of expectancy. Reiser suggested that if an investigator wants to use a psychic, it would be best to set up some verification procedure where an ob­jective observer could record all events.

Ward Lucas, in his investigative article "Police Use of Psychics: A Waste of Resources and Tax Money,"

published in the Campus Law Enforce­ment Journal (1985), described an experiment similar to the research conducted by Martin Reiser. In 1984 an investigative team at KUSA-TV in Denver took well-known psychics and presented them with six solved and unsolved cases from local police departments. Original evidence was also used. Each psychic was allowed to establish what he or she considered to be fair conditions. Later, the same cases were given to students and they made guesses. Each group scored according to chance. Says Lucas: "We may as well have opened fortune cookies to derive solutions to our criminal cases" (p. 16).


Results indicate that opinion is divided on how useful psychics are to the police. There are those who argue they help and others who argue they hinder. But who better to ask than the police departments themselves.


Thus, we undertook the present study.  Based upon the 1980 U.S. Census records, the police departments from the 50 largest U.S. cities were sur­veyed. (See Table 1). A questionnaire was sent to the chief of police in each city. Either the chief or his designee could respond. Those personnel who did respond included 8 deputy chiefs, 5 homicide unit commanders, 5 lieu­tenants, 4 chiefs of detectives, 4 detectives, 3 inspectors, 2 captains, 2 sergeants, and 1 deputy police admin­istrator, among others. All 50 cities replied, although Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., declined to answer.


A five-item questionnaire was used, and either yes or no answers were to be circled by the respondent. Room was also provided for any comments the respondent wished to make. (See Figure 1.) Room was also provided for any comments the respondent wished to make. It should be stated that there could possibly be an "underrater bias" among respond­ents since identification with psychics among police could have negative connotations. It is believed by the authors, however, that in this partic­ular study this effect was minimal, if it occurred at all. This belief was due to the conviction with which the comments were made. In the follow­ing analysis, the questions and responses were analyzed individually.

Question 1: In the past has your Police Department used psychics or does the department presently use them in solving investigations?


Of the 48 respondents, 31 an­swered no, and 17 answered yes. As stated before, Philadelphia and Wash­ington, D.C., declined to answer. Therefore, approximately 65 percent do not use and have never used psychics.


Below  are   some  comments  on Question   1   from  the  respondents, arranged alphabetically by city:

Chicago: Edward S. Wodnicki, Chief of Detectives, said that he, but not the department, had used a psychic on two occasions. "This was on my own volition and does not reflect policy of the Chicago Police Department."

Cleveland: David P. McNea, Deputy Chief, said his department "does not solicit the aid of psychics in solving investigations."

Detroit: James E. Kleiner, Inspector, Commanding Officer, Goals and Standards Section, said his department "has not and does not solicit psychics."

Los Angeles: W. O. Gartland, Com­manding Officer, Robbery-Homicide Division, said: "The Los Angeles Police Department does not use psychics as an investigative tool, although we are often contacted by them."

Nashville:  Myra W. Thompson, Sergeant, Planning and Re­search, said its department has used a psychic "once only."

San Francisco: Larry Gurnett, Dep­uty Chief of Investigation, said: "Psychics have volunteered information or the victims' fam­ilies seek that service and the information received is then given to us to evaluate for follow-up investigation."

Seattle: Roy Calvin Skagen, Asst. Chief: " 'Used' is a misleading word, perhaps. We have 'listened' to psychics when they contact us . . . usually at the request of a family member of a missing homicide victim. We do it as a courtesy and to show openness to explore any possibility when regular leads run dry. Success rate when we listen and look at a location indicated is zero.”



Question 2: If so, in which of the following categories?

Homicide                                  _____________________

Missing Persons                        _____________________

Kidnapping                               _____________________

Sexual Assault             _____________________

Burglary                                   _____________________

Locating Stolen             _____________________

   Property                                _____________________

Other                                       _____________________

Specify                                     _____________________


Psychics had been used in 17 of the departments. They were used in 15 homicides, 10 missing-persons cases, 1 kidnapping, one burglary, and 1 as­sault case.


Question 3: Does your Police Department presently handle infor­mation received from a psychic any different than information from an ordinary source.


Of the 40 cities responding to this question, 33 answered no and 7 answered yes.


Question 4: (a) If your department has used psychics, was the informa­tion received more helpful in solving the case than other information received?

(b) What kind of information was it and how was it used?


Of the 26 who answered this question, all answered no.


Below are the comments (4b), again arranged alphabetically by city:


Albuquerque:  Richard Hughes, Lieutenant, said the information received concerned "attempts to locate bodies." He added, "We have had no real success with one."


Atlanta: W. J. Taylor, Deputy Chief Field Operations Division, said:

"The Atlanta Bureau of Police Services does not as a general policy utilize psychics during criminal investigations." He added that, in 1980, psychic Dorothy Allison was called upon as police investigated the murders and disappearances of 30 black males in Atlanta. He said that Allison stayed in Atlanta for three days "visiting crime scenes, after which she provided investigators bits and pieces of information that proved to be of no value to the investigation.”  Said Taylor:  “Personally, I think our invitation to her was a mistake.  Her visit was highly publicized by both the local and national media.  As a result we received thousands of psychic readings from across the country. This flood of letters placed a tremend­ous burden on my investigators because each letter had to be read and analyzed. In the final analysis none of the information provided a linkage to the killer."


Austin: Mike Belvin: "Information received has been voluntary, unreliable, and useless to our investigation."


Boston: Patrick J. Brady, Detective, said: "Peter Hurkos, a psychic from Holland, was used in the Boston Strangler case."


Chicago: Edward S. Wodnicki, Chief of Detectives, said he personally has used a psychic twice. "In both instances the information was general. In regard to the burglary, the psychic was accu­rate regarding the location of a vehicle that was stolen in the course of the burglary. In the homicide, we feel that the body was transported for a period of time, before it was dumped. The psychic seems to be able to 'sight' a portion of the route traveled by the offender."


Memphis: Ken East, Captain, Hom­icide Division, said: "We have received general information, and used it as any other infor­mation in an investigation."


Nashville: Myra W. Thompson, Ser­geant, Planning and Research: "The case was that of a missing child (girl) and the psychic advised the police department that the child had been mur­dered and also the method; how­ever, could not provide location of the body. Body was eventually discovered."


Omaha: Larry L. Roberts, Homicide Unit Commander, said: "The information, in cases where psychics have contacted us, is usually not confirmed until after the fact."


Portland: Rob H. Aichele, Deputy Chief, said: "Psychics have offered conflicting reports, thus, self-negating each other.


San Diego, James R. Jarvis, Com­manding Officer, Homicide Div­ision, said he received "highly speculative information on a possible homicide suspect which proved to be untrue."

San   Francisco: - Larry R. Gurnett.. Deputy Chief of Investigations, said his department has received "suspect descriptions" as well as "victim location."


Seattle: Roy Calvin Skagen, Assist­ant Chief, said information received has concerned "location of bodies."

Question 5: Do you personally consider information from a psychic more valuable than information received from a regular source?

Of the respondents, 39 said no. None said yes. One said it depends on which psychic was used. One said "sometimes." Seven did not answer. Two (Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.) declined to answer.

Several respondents made com­ments concerning this question:

Austin: Mike Belvin: "I have yet to see any information received from psychics of any value, based on 20 years experience. The information is usually dis­torted, of no investigative value, _and inaccurate. They hamper an investigation and often cause distractions from the main investigation."


Boston: Patrick J. Brady, Detective: "All information received from any source is investigated for its validity."


Cleveland: David P. McNea, Deputy Chief: "Any information offered or brought forth by any so-called psychic would be handled no different than information obtained from ordinary sources."


Fort   Worth:  Thomas C. Swan, Homicide Lieutenant: "I have been Homicide Lieutenant for 7 years and know of no time that 'a psychic has been of any value other than offering false hope to survivors. They surface on sensational cases only. Most fit a mold. They tell you they are 85-percent accurate and are very defensive when you ask them for specifics. It doesn't take long for them to reach the victims' relatives and generate false hope. I would never, no matter what the cost, rely upon a psychic other than to process info the same as we do for everyone else. Where are these psychics when a wino is found murdered in an alley?"


Los Angeles:  W. O. Gartland, Com­manding Officer, Robbery-Homicide Division: "We have never been able to scientifically validate psychic phenomena, nor have we solved a case as the result of information provided by a purported psychic.  This department conducted a study a number of years ago and parti­cipated in a series of experiments with parapsychologists involved in a program at the University of California at Los Angeles, which resulted in our stance on psychics."


Omaha: Larry L. Roberts, Homicide Unit Commander: "Psychics often provide us with plausible theories to explore. We have not yet identified a suspect or made an arrest solely on the basis of psychic information. It is simply another investigative tool."


Portland: Rob H. Aichele, Deputy Chief: "Psychic information has been volunteered many times but has never been beneficial to a case.”



As the results above indicate, there is not a prevalent use of psychics among the police departments of our largest cities. Table 2 presents a summary of the data with abbreviated questions. One could argue that the psychics pander to and patronize the police but in the end prove to be parasitic. In some instances, as shown by the comments above, they may even hinder effective investigations.


Why then do titles like "Clairvoy­ant Crime Busters," "Cops Amazed by Crime-busting Psychic," and "Can Psychics See What Detectives Can't?" prevail? The mass media tend to give their audiences what they want. People want to believe there is some mysterious cosmic knowledge into which psychics tap. But, as this investigation reveals, the overwhelm­ing majority of those police who actually do the investigations prefer to work with known tools rather than with unknown ones.


Alexander, J. 1988. Cops amazed by crime-busting psychic. Weekly World News, May, p. 45.

Dear, W. 1984. The Dungeon Master:  The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert Ill, New York: Ballantine Books.

Duncan,  Lois.   1992.  Can  psychics  solve crimes? Woman's Day, April 1, pp. 30, 124-130.

Gordon,  H.   1987.   ExtraSensory  Deception.  Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Holub, K. 1988. Sylvia sells sooth by the seer.  West (Sunday magazine of the San JoseMercury News), July, pp. 4-11.

Lucas, W. 1985. Police use of psychics: A waste  of  resources  and  tax  money.  Campus Law Enforcement Journal, 15:15-21.

Lyons, A., and M. Truzzi. 1991. The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime.  New York: Mysterious Press. Morganthau, T. and V. E.  Smith.  1980.  Atlanta goes on a manhunt. Newsweek, December 1, pp. 40, 42.

Ralston, J.  1983.  Can  psychics  see  what detectives can't? McCall's, February, pp. 72-73.

Reiser, M. 1982. Police Psychology: Collected Papers.   Los  Angeles:  Lehi PublishingCompany.

Stowers, C. 1986. Careless Whispers: The Lake Waco Murders. New York: Pocket Books.

Wilson, C. 1987. The Psychic Detectives. New York: Berkley Books.

Wolkomir, R. and J. Wolkomir.   1987.  Clairvoyant  crime  busters.  McCall's, October, pp. 159-164.


]ane Ayers Sweat, a graduate student in counseling psychology at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, is a skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. Mark W. Durm, is a professor of psychology at Athens State College, Athens, AL 35611, where he teaches a course in skeptical thinking.