Teaching Cops to See

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

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)
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A Caravaggio appeared on the screen. In it, five men in 17th-century dress are seated around a table. Two others stand nearby, and one of them, barely discernible in shadow, points a finger—accusingly?—at a young man at the table with some coins.

Among the officers a discussion arose about who robbed whom, but they soon learned there could be no verdict. No one was being accused or arrested, Herman said. The painting was The Calling of St. Matthew, and the man in the shadow was Jesus Christ. The cops fell silent.

Later, Deputy Inspector Donna Allen said, "I can see where this would be useful in sizing up the big picture."

Herman led the students upstairs into a gallery. The cops split into two- and three-person surveillance teams, each assigned to a particular artwork.

One team huddled in front of an enormous painting in which a heavily muscled man with close-cropped hair was being manhandled by a throng of armored ruffians and a buxom woman who was tearing off his shirt.

Robert Thursland, a 52-year-old inspector who looked trim and corporate in his gray suit, gave the class the skinny. The painting appeared to depict the end of a trial, and the muscle-bound fellow was "possibly being led off to be tortured," said Thursland. The woman tugging at his clothes was part of the lynch mob, he added.

Herman revealed that the officers had been scrutinizing a 17th-century Guercino painting of Samson after his capture by the Philistines—the woman, of course, was Samson's lover and betrayer, Delilah. That corroborated suspicions in the room as to victims and perps, and everyone seemed to agree the case could be closed.

In another gallery, a squat Congolese power idol, embedded with nails and gouged with holes and gaping gashes, appeared to be howling in pain. "When you came through these doors," Herman said, "what struck you about him?"

Assistant Chief George Anderson, who commands the Police Academy, said with a sigh, "First thing I thought, 'Boy, this guy caught a lotta flak. I kinda felt it was me.'"

Back in the conference room, Herman had the group pair up and take seats. One person faced forward while the other sat with his or her back to the screen. The officers who could see the pictures described them to their partners. One slide showed the well-known 1970 photograph of a teenage girl at Kent State kneeling beside a student who has been shot by the National Guard.


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