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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Anderson told his backward-facing partner: "The woman is obviously distraught."

Ms. Herman scolded, "Uh-oh, I heard an 'obvious' out there!"

"Oops!" he said. "That's the second time I did that."

Another photograph showed two couples standing side by side. Herman cautioned that neither should be identified by name, only by body language. The consensus was that the younger couple looked happy, playful and brimming with enthusiasm, while the older couple seemed stiff, worried and ill at ease.

Eyeballing the older couple, Thursland offered, "They don't know where they're gonna be living come January. "

They were George and Laura Bush; the younger couple, Barack and Michelle Obama.

Herman, who grew up in Somerset, New Jersey, and earned a master's degree in art history as well as a law degree, began her career as an attorney in a private firm. But after a while her lifelong love of art held sway, and she went on to manage programs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, assist the director of the Frick Collection in Manhattan and give lectures on 19th-century American and French paintings at the Met (which she still does). She's currently the director of educational development for the New York City public television station WNET. She began teaching her three-hour "Art of Perception" course at the Frick in 2004, to medical students at first. Then, over pizza one night with a friend who wondered why Herman limited her students to future physicians, Herman recalled a harrowing experience she had had while studying law at George Washington University.

Assigned by a professor to accompany police on patrol runs, she had raced with two cops to the scene of a raucous domestic dispute. Standing on the landing below, Herman watched one officer bang on an apartment door while the other nervously fingered his handgun. What the first officer saw when the door opened—a whining child, say, or a shotgun-toting madman—and how he communicated that information to his partner could have life-or-death consequences, she realized.

The following Monday, Herman made a cold call to the New York City Police Academy to pitch her course. And four months later, she was teaching NYPD captains at the Frick. One comment she remembers was an officer's take on Claude Lorrain's 17th-century painting Sermon on the Mount, in which a crowd gazes up at Jesus. "If I drove up on the scene and saw all these people looking up," the cop said, "I'd figure I had a jumper."

Herman, speaking to the class I attended, underscored the need for precision by recounting the murder of a woman whose body was not found for more than a year, partly, according to news reports, because of a commander's vague instructions about where to look for it.


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