Saturday, August 06, 2005

We see what we want to see.

If we see at all.


To Master the Art Of Solving Crimes, Cops Study Vermeer --- Frick Museum Paintings Open New York Officers' Eyes; Just Like `the Seven Five'

By Ellen Byron

1254 words
27 July 2005
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

One Monday earlier this year, when New York's Frick Collection was closed to the public, about 15 New York police officers were ushered inside. The officers, some wearing their holsters, solemnly gathered around a conference table in an ornate, wood-paneled room. Having no idea why they had been summoned there, some assumed it was for a security briefing. They were surprised when they were told the real reason: They were there to look at art.

Capt. Ernest Pappas frowned in concentration as he stood before Vermeer's "Mistress and Maid" in the Frick's plush West Gallery and was asked to describe the painting.

"This woman is right-handed, of well-to-do means, and the pen appears to be in the dropped position," Mr. Pappas said, assessing the mistress. Unsure about the other figure in the picture, the maid, the 42-year-old asked his colleagues whether they thought she was delivering bad news. "Is she assuming a defensive position? Do you think that's a smirk?"

Though he hadn't so carefully analyzed a painting before, Mr. Pappas immediately saw how it related to his detective work in Queens: "Crimes -- and art -- can be solved by looking at the little details."

Art lovers flock to the Frick to pay homage to one of the world's finest displays of Western European art. Masterpieces by Rembrandt, Titian and Renoir adorn the walls of the Fifth Avenue mansion, once the home of industrial magnate Henry Clay Frick, an avid collector of art from the Renaissance period to the end of the 19th century. The beaux-arts setting is hushed and formal. Children under 10 years of age aren't allowed inside.

It's not your usual urban crime scene. But now, in an unusual effort to improve observational and analytical skills, the New York Police Department is bringing newly promoted officers, including sergeants, captains and uniformed executives, to the Frick to examine paintings.

"In New York, the extraordinary is so ordinary to us, so in training we're always looking to become even more aware as observers," says Diana Pizzuti, deputy chief and commanding officer of New York City's police academy.

"Tell me the who, what, where, why and when of each piece," Amy Herman, head of education at the Frick, instructs each class before they descend the mansion's grand staircase and enter the public galleries. She limits the time her students have in front of each painting. "Just like when they arrive at a crime scene, they have to make observations and judgments quickly," she says.

The NYPD course began last year, inspired by similar classes the 38-year-old Ms. Herman teaches for New York medical students. Those classes are intended to develop diagnostic abilities through better observation of patients.

Capt. Kevin Hurley, 53, scrutinized a 1742 Hogarth painting called "Miss Mary Edwards." He studied the seated woman in a red dress, trying to determine how to best explain the portrait to the rest of the group.

"We decided she wanted to show off the fact that she's educated and wealthy," Mr. Hurley told the other officers, pointing out her straight posture, her jewels and the letter she held, which they guessed was from her rich husband. The hunting dog in the picture puzzled Mr. Hurley. "That doesn't seem like a dog that woman would have," he told the group. "Shouldn't it be a poodle or something?"

Ms. Herman explained that the portrait reflected the independent nature of Miss Edwards, an educated woman who divorced her extravagant husband and regained control of her household. "We had come up with a really good story for it, but everything wasn't as it appeared," Mr. Hurley concluded. "I now know how to look for more than what you first see."

Standing in front of El Greco's "The Purification of the Temple," David Grossi, an NYPD captain, recognized Jesus as the painting's central figure, characterized the scene as chaotic and explained the work's use of light and color.

"The gang unit would probably be called in," he continued. "It appears there's grand larceny here, felony assault there, and Jesus would probably be charged with inciting a riot." Counting 17 people in the scene, he added: "Good thing there are plenty of witnesses."

Mr. Grossi, 41, says his Frick class came to mind when he responded to a call in his Bronx precinct earlier this month[JULY 12]. A man had tried to evade an arrest warrant by jumping from one rooftop to another, and "he didn't make it," Mr. Grossi said. Though he has spent much of his 21 years as a police officer doing detective work, Mr. Grossi thought back to his training at the Frick when he began securing the scene after the man had been taken to the hospital.

When looking at a painting, he was taught to assess the entire canvas, from foreground to background, before drawing conclusions. So instead of just focusing on the immediate site of the fall, he widened the crime scene to include the sides of the building and a van in a driveway. "It reminded me to stop and take in the whole scene and not just have tunnel vision," Mr. Grossi said. Detectives later found the suspect's palm prints on the hood of the van, and that helped establish the route he had used in attempting to evade arrest.

The course has also given Ms. Herman new perspective on her day job. Though she has a master's degree in art history and is well versed in the Frick's art collection, she says that working with the officers has given her insight and appreciation of the art she sees every day. When leading a discussion about J.M.W. Turner's dramatic sea scene "Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor," an officer remarked that it seemed like a race. "I've always looked at that urgency in terms of impending danger, but he could see that same tension in a sporting context," she says. "Now, every time I see the painting, I look at it a little differently."

Noting the vivid chaos of the Turner painting, one sergeant blurted that it looked like "the seven five," drawing agreement and smiles from the other officers. Ms. Herman, not catching the reference, asked for an explanation and learned that Brooklyn's 75th precinct was one of the city's busiest and most dangerous. The painting hanging next to it, Turner's "Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer Morning," then elicited shouts of "The one nine!" -- the quiet Manhattan precinct in which the Frick is located.

Giovanni Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert," one of the Frick's most prized works, is usually considered a masterpiece of landscape or spirituality, or both. This summer, a group of captains offered a more modern assessment of the 15th-century work. "As a police officer, I have to say we have an EDP here," said Capt. Donald McHugh, using the police code word for emotionally disturbed person. Pointing to a skull and a jug of wine near St. Francis's feet, Mr. McHugh argued the piece could be depicting a crime scene. "Even people of God can be suspicious," he told the group. "He'd probably be a voluntary arrest, though, no handcuffs."


Blogger JY said...

what a great way to enhance plasticity. can we run some slides of art during our thinktank?

10:23 PM  

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