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Amy Herman at the Metropolitan Museum with Sargent's Madame X asks her class of cops, "How would you describe this woman in one sentence?" (Amy Toensing)

Teaching Cops to See

At New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amy Herman schools police in the fine art of deductive observation

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Early one morning a bunch of New York City police officers, guns concealed, trooped into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inside a conference room, Amy Herman, a tall 43-year-old art historian and lawyer, apologized that she hadn't been able to provide the customary stimulant. "I usually try to give you coffee with plenty of sugar to make you talk more," she said.

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The officers, all captains or higher in rank, were attending "The Art of Perception," a course designed to fine-tune their attention to visual details, some of which might prove critical in solving or preventing a crime. Herman laid out the ground rules. "First, there are two words that are not allowed—'obviously' and 'clearly'—since what's obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Second, no reading of labels. For purposes of this exercise, we are not focusing on who the artist was, the title of the work or even when it was created. Third, I want hands back, no pointing. If you want to communicate something, you have to say, 'Up in the left-hand corner, you can see...' "

Herman did not want to talk about brush strokes, palettes, texture, light, shadow or depth. Schools of painting and historical context were moot. Suspecting that some of the cops were first-timers to the Met, she tried to ease the pressure. "Remember," she said, "there are no judgments and no wrong answers."

She showed slides of paintings by James Tissot and Georges de La Tour. There was an Edward Hopper in which a hatted, forlorn-looking woman sits alone at a table, sipping from a cup.

"OK, what do we see here?" she said.

"A woman having a cup of coffee," answered one of the cops.

"Unlike us," another said.

Herman said, "Do we know it's coffee?"

"If it was tea, there would be a spoon."

"Or a pot, like in England."

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