Hypnosis could become as important in police work as fingerprinting
The two bandits, one waving a shotgun, had stormed into a small neighborhood grocery in New York City. When the panicky shopkeeper insisted there was no money, he was coldly shot down. The victim’s 14-year-old nephew witnessed the murder but, understandably, the boy was too traumatized to explain in detail what had happened. At that point Sgt. Charles Diggett, a 27-year veteran of the New York Police Department, was called into the case.
“We hypnotized the boy, and he was able to describe the gunman,” reports Diggett. “A detective on the case had a number of suspects; the boy’s description fit one of them.” That suspect’s mug shot was slipped in among 99 others and, according to the sergeant, “the boy picked him right out.”
Diggett, 51, is the NYPD’s first staff hypnotist, and because the technique is new to police work, he talks about it cautiously. “We don’t really solve any cases,” he says. “It’s just one more tool, like a lie detector.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in a California case last fall, let stand a murder conviction obtained with the help of evidence gathered from a witness under hypnosis. Still, the admissibility of such testimony has not been definitively settled. (Diggett never uses hypnosis on a suspect, lest it violate constitutional protection against self-incrimination.) “Most of the time,” he points out, “it’s used to aid in recalling another two digits of a license plate or a better description of a person.”
Mindful of the hocus-pocus fears surrounding hypnosis, Diggett scoffs at notions that it can be employed to trick people into compromising themselves. In New York’s highly publicized .44-caliber murders, for example, even hypnosis could not force a description of the “Son of Sam” from a witness who insisted, “No, I don’t want to see that face.”
Diggett’s methods vary. “In cases such as rape,” he says, “it can be so traumatic that we’ll have the victim imagine she is viewing it on a movie screen. Instead of living it again, she’s observing as if she is outside of herself.”
The Brooklyn-raised Diggett has had a 30-year interest in hypnosis and trained in his specialty in New York, New Jersey and California. Until 1976, however, he spent much of his police career on patrol-car duty. Having failed to sell the concept to the NYPD, he almost called it quits. “I was on terminal leave using up my vacation days,” he remembers. “On the last day I got called in to do. the work.” Since then Diggett has helped to develop new evidence in 62 percent of the cases he has worked on.
He also maintains a private practice in his Long Island home to help patients deal with such problems as overweight or nail-biting. Years ago his confidence in his craft was shaken when he tried to hypnotize Lucille, his wife and mother of their four children. Lucille “broke out laughing and destroyed me for six months,” he shudders. Recently he had far more success in helping her overcome her fear of driving. (She finally learned at 50.) At times, too, he is his own best patient. “I often hypnotize myself,” he admits, “when I need pep late at night to read all the hypnosis literature.”