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, who is often called to crime scenes, took the lesson seriously. Instead of ordering detectives generally to "search the block" for shell casings, weapons or other evidence, he said he would now tell them specifically to start at the far end, work their way back to the near end, look under all the parked cars, behind the gated areas, in the shrubbery, in the garages and in the trash cans.

One of Herman's graduates, Lt. Dan Hollywood, whose last name seems well-suited to his Jimmy Stewart-like demeanor, said her pointers have helped snag pickpockets, handbag snatchers and shoplifters who prowl the Times Square area. Hollywood coordinates the Grand Larceny Task Force of 24 plainclothes officers. "Instead of telling my people that the guy who keeps looking into one parked car after another is dressed in black," he explained, "I might say he's wearing a black wool hat, a black leather coat with black fur trim, a black hoodie sweatshirt and Timberlands."

New York's finest aren't the only law-enforcement types to benefit from Herman's teaching. Other students have included U.S. Secret Service agents and members of the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, the Strategic Studies Group of the Naval War College, the National Guard and, during a visit to London, the Metropolitan Police of Scotland Yard.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of art's crime-fighting power involved a task force of federal, state and local officers investigating mob control of garbage collection in Connecticut. One FBI agent went undercover for 18 months, and during that time, as it happened, attended one of Herman's classes at the Frick. According to Bill Reiner, the FBI special agent who heads the task force, Herman's exercises helped the undercover agent sharpen his observations of office layouts, storage lockers, desks and file cabinets containing incriminating evidence. The information he provided led to detailed search warrants and ultimately resulted in 34 convictions and government seizure and sale of 26 trash-hauling companies worth $60 million to $100 million.

"Amy taught us that to be successful, you have to think outside the box," said Reiner. "Don't just look at a picture and see a picture. See what's happening."

Herman has taken her lessons to heart. When her 7-year-old son, Ian, was in preschool, his teacher worried that he wasn't verbal enough and suggested that Herman try some of her exercises on the boy. Herman pressed him to describe in detail what he saw when they were at home or on the street. "It worked!" Herman says. "We started talking about all the things we see and why we think they look that way, and he hasn't stopped talking since."

She encounters frequent reminders of her pedagogy's impact. While riding the subway not long ago, Herman noticed two burly men giving her the eye. They were unshaven and dressed in shabby attire. They made her nervous, and she got ready to get off the train at the next station.

Then one of the men tapped her on the elbow. "Hey," he said, "we took your course. We're cops."

Neal Hirschfeld's latest book, Dancing With the Devil, the true story of a federal undercover agent, will be published next year. Photographer Amy Toensing is based in New York City.


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