Teaching cops the art of observation

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

Cops and reporters are often at odds. But — as someone once told me — we’re also a lot alike. For one thing — as someone also told me — we’re all students of human behavior.

For cops, the ability to read people is literally a matter of life and death. Besides being key to survival on the street, it is also an essential factor in making arrests and the successful prosecution of the offenders.

As a result, good cops can read body language as easily as most people can read a newspaper. The best can spot a “tell” or visual cue about someone’s true intentions, from a proverbial mile away.

But even the best make mistakes. And even honest mistakes can have disastrous consequences.

Clearing Things Up

Let’s face it. Cops are nothing if not cynical. But given the nature of their work, who could really blame them for seeing the world through jaded eyes? Unless, of course, that cynicism morphs into something worse. Once that happens, there’s no going back.

So law enforcement agencies throughout the United States are now turning to an expert in another field in order to help their officers see things differently. Her name is Amy E. Herman, and The New York Times just did a feature story about her.

Black and white photograph of New York Police Department barriers taken by Alexandra Bogdanovic
NYPD barriers. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

The piece, which you can read in print or at nytimes.com, focuses on Herman’s role as an “expert in visual perception” and her work with the New York Police Department. Specifically, the story’s about what happened when Herman took a few of New York’s Finest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As Herman reportedly told them: “I’ve had people say, ‘I hate art,’ and I say, ‘That’s not relevant. This is not a class about Pollock vs. Picasso. I’m not teaching you about art today; I’m using art as a new set of data, to help you clear the slate and use the skills you use on the job. My goal when you walk out the door is that you’re thinking differently about the job.”

In other words, the “field trip” served as a perfect opportunity for the cops to hone their powers of observation.

As I See It

As far as I’m concerned, this is a fantastic program — and the NYPD’s decision to take advantage of it couldn’t make me happier.

Alexandra Bogdanovic
Founder/owner of In Brief Legal Writing Services, Alexandra Bogdanovic. Photo by N. Bogdanovic

You see, I studied art history in high school and college. I loved every single minute of it. Yes, you learn about art and architecture. But that’s not all. You learn how to look at the big picture — and all of the minute details. You learn how to evaluate both, and put everything in its proper context.

To put it another way, you learn critical thinking skills. You learn how to describe what you’ve seen in writing. You’ll find that two people can look at the exact same painting, sculpture or artifact and see something entirely different. But you’ll also learn the importance of seeing something for what it is not what you think it is.

The whole truth?

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

“The real purpose of this post is to encourage independent, critical thinking.”

On Sunday, The New York Times actually shared some “good news.” Contrary to public opinion… or more accurately, public perception, crime is down. New Yorkers are safer than they think. Their fears are baseless.

If you know me at all, or if you are any good at reading between the lines, you can easily detect the sarcasm here. Or perhaps it’s merely a healthy dose of skepticism. In any case, the purpose of this post is not to bash the Times. If anything the newspaper, which, in my humble opinion, joins the rest of the mainstream media in demonstrating a blatant anti-law enforcement bias, actually made a fairly decent attempt at presenting both sides of this particular story.

The real purpose of this post is to encourage independent, critical thinking – a skill that is not taught (much less encouraged) in American schools  and hence one that I find sorely lacking among the vast majority of Americans.

Of course it is far easier to take what the government – or any other authority – tells us on face value than to question it. Deep down those of us who live in free societies want to believe that authorities have our best interests at heart – so it is far easier to believe that our duly-elected leaders, teachers, police and the media are telling us the truth rather than what we want to hear.

ISIS is being defeated, the economy has recovered, unemployment is down and – at least in New York City – crime has declined as well. A rosy picture indeed. And why not believe it? After all, those who are telling it say they have data to prove their point. Numbers. Cold, hard facts. That’s all the proof you need. Or so they say.

But the numbers can be – and are – easily manipulated by those who provide them and those who report them. This tactic is hardly unique to one political party – or even one group, for that matter. Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Communists, anarchists, liberals, conservatives, economists, the media and even scientists engage in it.

Acknowledging all of this is the key to sorting through the BS and drawing your own conclusions. It is just one step though. Once you realize that any data can be – and is – manipulated, you must then ask the tough questions. Who is manipulating it? How are they doing so? How do they benefit from twisting the facts?

In some cases finding the answer is simply a question of following the money but in most cases it’s simply a question of using a little bit of common sense.

Speaking of which, here’s a newsflash for The New York Times: perception is reality.