The Independent in the UK ran the initial story with the headline “Detectives investigating missing persons cases ‘should consider the advice of psychics’, says College of Policing.” The opening sentence read “Detectives investigating missing persons cases should consider tips from people claiming to have supernatural abilities, according to new proposals from the College of Policing.”
That certainly sounds like the College wants detectives thinking, Hmm, forget Sherlock, I’d better send for psychics to get the expert help I need on this tough case! The paper goes so far as to report that experts want psychics taken seriously — as long as there’s no financial conflict of interest: “Before taking clairvoyants seriously, ‘the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included.’”
So, the message is that the College is totally into psychic vibes, right? Yes, the rest of the article contains some fuzzy language and caveats, but you know how little attention those will get.
Other newspapers got the memo, and dutifully followed suit. The UK Telegraph‘s headline was “Psychics’ help finding missing people should not be ruled out, police officers told.” The Belfast Telegraph‘s was “Help of psychics should be evaluated in missing people cases: Police guidance.”
The Washington Times editors said to hell with any ambiguity, let’s make this thing perfectly clear. Their headline: British police advised to consult psychics in missing person cases: report. Yes, the police are to actively seek out psychics and enlist their help, according to that worse-than-worthless rag:
British law enforcement are now being advised to seek the help of clairvoyants when investigating a missing person case.
A new proposal from the College of Policing advises law enforcement to consult people claiming to have supernatural abilities, The Independent reported.”
There’s only one problem: it’s all wrong.
By my reading, the official report’s primary message is that psychics should not be taken seriously — that is, not unless they receive independent confirmation, which means psychic information on its own is useless. The rest of its message consists of advice on how to deal with psychics who try to inject themselves into the case, and in no way suggests that detectives seek out psychics for help.
High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception. Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified. These contacts usually come from well-intentioned people, but the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included. The person’s methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes.
The Independent did quote most of this paragraph, but only after that misleading headline and opening sentence, and then breaking up the actual quotes into pieces surrounded with words that altered its meaning. After that dramatic opener, the quoted experts’ skepticism is just so much chaff falling to the field:
People claiming to have special powers may just be amateur investigators, according to John Briggs, a former detective superintendent at Derbyshire Constabulary. “Some people say they have supernatural powers when they have information. We deal with it in the same way we would deal with any other information… if they say it’s come to them in a dream for example, isn’t the same thing as how they have actually got it. They may have started asking around and doing their own investigation,” he told PoliceOracle.com.
Briggs gets at a key reason why law enforcement officials often feel they have little choice but to follow up psychic tips, and it has nothing to do with the Other Side. Psychics may claim their knowledge comes from a vision, but they could be covering their asses to hide a less innocent means of acquiring their information. That was the intriguing premise of the TV series finale that gets my vote for best portrayal of an atheist and skeptic: The Mentalist. (You can see excerpts in this recap of the show’s atheism and skepticism I put together after the series ended).
The Independent did include, albeit buried at the bottom, this important response by the UK charity Missing People:
As a non-judgemental organisation, we respect the fact that some families of missing people will want to try every avenue in order to find a loved one. Research based on interviews with the families of missing people conducted by the charity shows that no interviewees reported significant findings or comfort from the experience of consulting a psychics or mediums.
If I had a missing loved one, I’d certainly prefer Missing People’s evidence-based approach over Find Me, the U.S. organization of “psychic detectives” who push despairing people toward psychics with grossly misleading “success stories” that aren’t, consuming detectives’ precious time and resources.
There are further reasons the law often feels forced to waste time on psychic tips. Not only are they hesitant to risk accusations of an incomplete investigation, if a lead they don’t pursue turns out to be right, however coincidentally, it could go very badly for them. As a UK website for policing resources and news notes, some families beg for psychic tips to be followed up out of desperation. It quotes a response to the new report by Prof. Nick Fyfe, a researcher into issues surrounding missing persons:
It’s quite a complex area. In the work we did we certainly came across cases where families had enlisted the support of clairvoyants. This is a bit of a dilemma for police because one of their key things is to treat families with compassion. If a family has contacted mystics when a loved one is still missing, I suppose it’s an indication of the family’s desperation. Police, I suppose, have to take these things seriously because it’s part of being compassionate. They will want to take any information seriously.
In that last comment, Prof. Fyfe is saying that compassion — not the need for credible info — will understandably motivate police to consider psychic tips. So how did The Independent report Fyfe’s comments? It stripped the quotation of its context about compassion and paraphrased Fyfe as saying, merely, “Police will want to take any information seriously.” Sigh.
Other papers adopted The Independent’s message as their own, now that they had been given that pass to sensationalize the story. These news reports have irresponsibly muddied the waters. Not only families of crime victims and the missing, but even many law enforcement professionals, are sure to get the wrong message.
Patrick Jane, we miss your favorite line:
(Top image via YouTube)