Science / Medicine : Sensing Just How to Help the Police

<i> Seckel is active in Southern California Skeptics, a group that investigates scientific claims. </i>

Over the years, the Los Angeles Police Department has received numerous offers of assistance from psychics and others claiming to have extrasensory perception.

Along with these offers are numerous reports in the media that psychics have provided information useful in major police investigations.

A couple of years ago, I began an investigation to find out if the department does, in fact, employ or use psychics and, if so, if they have been helpful in the investigation of crimes.


It turned out that the department had done two little-known studies to test the claims of some psychics. Both studies concluded that the use of psychics in the investigation of major crimes is unlikely to produce much useful information.

Initially, I was referred to a 1980 police study concerning the use of psychics by Martin Reiser, director of Behavioral Sciences Services for the Los Angeles police, Susan Saxe, police staff psychologist, and Detective Philip Sartuche, Robbery-Homicide Division.

Their report stated: “Contrary to some statements, the LAPD has not employed psychics in criminal investigations. The same situation appears to be true for most police departments contacted. In several well-publicized major cases where individuals who claimed psychic powers volunteered information to the department about the crime, the information has not proven useful to the investigation. Similarly, a comprehensive analysis of psychic claims in solving major crimes by C. E. M. Hansel in ‘ESP: A Scientific Evaluation,’ revealed little correspondence between media reports and later objective documentation.”

In 1979, the Los Angeles police decided to design a study to investigate the feasibility of using psychics’ information to aid in the identification and apprehension of suspects in major crime cases.

Twelve psychics participated in the project. Eight were considered to be professional psychics; four were considered non-professionals.

The participants were selected by D. Louise Ludwig, then-associate professor of psychology at Los Angeles City College, from those considered to be the most reputable and able in the Los Angeles area who were willing to participate.


Four crimes, two solved and two unsolved, were selected by an investigator not involved in the research. No information about the crimes was given to the project staff or to the academic consultant.

Of the unsolved cases, one contained a detailed description of the suspect and the crime itself; no suspect information was available in the other. Physical evidence from each of the four crimes was placed in sealed, numbered envelopes. Each psychic was interviewed individually and first asked to elicit information from the sealed envelopes. Responses were tape-recorded. Then the psychic was asked to open each envelope, look and and examine the evidence, and again react to the unconcealed evidence. These responses were also recorded verbatim.

Neither the psychics nor the psychologist-experimenter had any prior knowledge of any of the cases or evidence. This prevented the experimenter from unconsciously influencing the participants.

Data was grouped into the following categories, which corresponded with the information recorded on the original crime reports: the crime committed, victims, suspects, physical descriptions and crime locations. Other information elicited from the participants, which could not in any case be verified, included accessories to the crime, life style of the victim and/or suspect, and psychological traits of the victim and/or suspect.

However, as only 50% of the information provided by the psychics was verifiable, the study focused only on verifiable criteria indicators.

In many instances, the psychics did not comment on all categories, and often they did not specify in which category specific information applied. Further, some of the participants were extremely verbose, while others provided only very sketchy responses.

The Los Angeles Police Department conclusion: The research data does not support the contention that psychics can provide significant additional information leading to the solution of major crimes.

The area of greatest accuracy had to do with the sex of the suspect and sex of the victim. Some degree of accuracy was also detected in the type of crime committed.

A common thread ran through many of the psychics’ responses. The most commonly repeated conception of these crimes was that the victim was a female prostitute murdered by a male, with drug involvement either by the victim, the suspect or both.

Many of the psychics believed these cases might have been connected with the “Hillside Strangler,” a highly publicized case in the news at the time this study was conducted. However, none of the crimes involved in the study were related to that case.

Overall, little, if any, information was elicited from the 12 participants that would provide material helpful in the investigation of the major crimes in question.

“We are forced to conclude, based on our results, that the usefulness of psychics as an aid in criminal investigation has not been validated,” the report stated.

Because of the continuing controversy about the usefulness of psychics in crime investigations, the department decided to do a further study. That was done in 1980.

It used two additional comparison groups that could provide empirical reference points. The use of control groups would also help clarify whether individuals not identified as psychic could produce useful information.

Two teams of psychics, four in one group and eight in the other, participated in the study. In addition, two comparison groups were used. The first such control group consisted of 12 homicide detectives who volunteered to participate in the study. The second group consisted of 11 volunteers who were representative of the general student population. The two non-psychic groups were instructed to take each piece of evidence and attempt to guess the characteristics of both the victim and suspect in each crime.

The data produced by the three groups differed markedly in character and quantity.

Most of the psychics generated lengthy discourses with dramatic and confident-sounding statements. Their accounts were also characterized by many direct-perception statements, like “I now see such-and-such.”

In contrast to the psychics’ statements, those the detective group produced were very terse and highly qualified. The detectives clearly felt uncomfortable with the instructions to rely on intuition and feelings.

The students appeared to feel slightly more at ease with the task than did the detectives. Their statements tended to be lists of information without any of the dramatic and ostensibly sensory descriptions that characterized the psychics’ data.

The study concluded: “Since the psychic group produced approximately 10 times as much information as either of the two comparison groups, it is more likely by chance alone that their data would produce more ‘hits.’ Despite this statistical advantage, the psychics were unable to produce information that was significantly better than the two comparison groups. It is important to note that no information that would have been investigatively useful, such as first and last names, license plate numbers, apartment house locations, etc., was accurately produced by any of the subjects. Statistically, the data fit a pattern that could be expected by chance.”

The study added: “The data provided no support for the belief that the identified ‘sensitives’ could produce investigatively useful information. Additionally, the data also failed to show that the psychics could produce any information relating to the cases beyond a chance level of expectancy.”

Evidence from this study was consistent with, and replicated, the findings of the Los Angeles Police Department’s earlier study.

Extending the results of these studies would indicate that the use of psychics in the investigation of major crimes is unlikely to produce much useful information.

Has the Los Angeles Police Department changed its policy or views regarding the use of psychics in the last seven years?

No, according to Dan Cooke, head of public relations for the department. “The LAPD has not, does not and will not use psychics in the investigation of crimes, period,” Cooke said. “If a psychic offers free information to us over the phone, we will listen to them politely, but we do not take them seriously. It is a waste of time.”