The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, a senior foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering the United Kingdom and several other jurisdictions. Clare has written numerous posts for In Custodia Legis, including Revealing the Presences of Ghosts; Weird Laws, or Urban Legends?; FALQs: Brexit Referendum; and The UK’s Legal Response to the London Bombings of 7/7.
As the days get shorter and darkness falls earlier, there is nothing like curling up inside with a lovely cup of tea and a good scary movie. The Conjuring 2 movie depicts the police being dispatched to a call describing supernatural activity. This happened in the case that the movie was based upon but, as shown in the movie, the police did not investigate further as the supernatural activity was deemed to not be a police matter. This is in contrast to the police depicted in the TV show Wellington Paranormal, where they do actually “investigate” the many strange happenings in Wellington, New Zealand.
In England, the police have a duty, established by the common law, to protect the public by detecting and preventing crime. For the London Metropolitan police, their decision to investigate a case depends upon four criteria: how vulnerable the victim is; the severity of the offense; the likelihood the crime can be solved; and how effective the use of resources is to investigate the crime.
For the police to investigate a case, a crime must have been committed, which can pose a problem for cases where the person calling the police believes the supernatural is the sole cause of their distress. In these cases, unless there is a human element, for example, if an intruder is causing the noises, or a person is acting in a manner the caller believes is due to a supernatural cause, there is little the police can do as there do not appear to be any crimes that can be committed through purely supernatural causes and thus there is no way for the police to investigate and solve them.
In some cases, the person reporting a crime they believe involves supernatural activity may be in need of assistance with their mental health. As a result, the police may conduct a check on the person’s welfare and, if deemed necessary, refer them to the appropriate government agencies for help and support.
Police investigations of the paranormal are not just limited to reports of people who believe they have seen a ghost or a witch. The government has noted that the police are at the forefront for determining statistics to what is referred to as a “hidden crime,” that of faith or belief-based child abuse. The government acknowledged that, while instances of these crimes are few, the government believes they are underreported and, in 2012, introduced a national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief to raise awareness to help people who come into contact with children to recognize such abuse and build upon research conducted in 2006.
This type of child abuse occurs where children can be harmed due to supernatural beliefs, such as through ritual murders, using the belief in witchcraft to help ensure compliance to facilitate human trafficking, sexual exploitation, or domestic slavery; or in cases where parents believe the child is possessed by supernatural forces and harm the child while attempting to save them. Offenses for these acts of child abuse are primarily contained in the Children Act 1989, the Sexual Offences Act 2005, and the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
Freedom of Information Requests
There have been a number of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA request) to determine how many calls the police receive about the supernatural. The definition of supernatural activity varies in the responses, but typically includes “ghosts, UFOs, paranormal activity, witches or witchcraft or supernatural activity.” A number of these requests have been published and show a variety of responses from the different police forces.
From 2010-2015, Manchester was reportedly a hotbed of paranormal activity, with a wide range of emergency calls placed for assistance with supernatural issues, ranging from reports of alleged alien abductions to requests for ghostbusters. North Yorkshire police disclosed no reports relating to a variety of terms relating to the supernatural for the period 2019-2020. In the same area, for the period from July 2016 to July 2019, a UFO was reported hovering over a village that was later determined to be a false claim. The police were sent to investigate this case under the description of “Public, Safety and Welfare – Suspicious Circumstances/Insecure Premises/Vehicle.”
A FOIA request in Northern Ireland seeking “details of extra-terrestrial and supernatural sightings” in the area for the past five years was deemed to exceed the “appropriate costs limit,” which at the time was £450 (approximately US$625), equating to 18 hours of work. A similar FOIA request to Northumbria police was rejected on the same grounds. A similar issue was noted by the West Midlands police in response to a FOIA request that asked for information about the number of reports received for the years 2016 and 2017 that contain the words zombie, werewolf, ghost, and alien. The response provided statistics to the requester, which stated there were 54 reports that included the terms for the relevant time period, with the caveat that
it is important to note that these data have been extracted from a number of data sources used by forces for police purposes. The detail collected to respond specifically to your request is subject to the inaccuracies inherent in any large-scale recording system. As a consequence, care should be taken to ensure data collection processes and their inevitable limitations are taken into account when interpreting those data. The figures provided therefore are our best interpretation of relevance of data to your request, but you should be aware that the collation of figures for ad hoc requests may have limitations and this should be taken into account when those data are used.
A FOIA request to Nottinghamshire police revealed a total of 22 recorded incidents involving supernatural activity from October 2014-2015, with 12 of these incidents being attended to by police officers. The FOIA request further sought to ascertain the cost of these calls to the police, but this was unable to be determined. The FOIA response did state that one incident resulted in a crime being recorded, but that this was “not in relation to any supernatural activity.”
An owner of a company that investigates paranormal activity was reported as stating that individuals who suspect they are experiencing paranormal activity should always first call the police, who can check for intruders and other causes, prior to calling a private company to investigate the paranormal. However, the owner of a different company was reported as stating that individuals who experience supernatural activity are frequently reluctant to report it to the police or anyone else over concerns about the consequences of making a report.