You might expect a seen-it-all New Haven police detective to be skeptical about the professional benefits of looking at Victorian paintings. But when Lt. Herman Badger recently tried an exercise that hones observation skills by viewing fine art, he was eager for more. Badger called the experience “fascinating.”

Along with Yale University Police Chief James A. Perrotti and several other police supervisors, Badger, chief of detectives for the New Haven police department, carefully examined slides of paintings, including a portrait of two women. He says the group then gave what they believed were exhaustive descriptions of the picture. “The main focus of our job is to be trained observers,” Badger explains.

But then they looked again. “Upon looking at it closer,” says Badger, a 22-year veteran of the New Haven force, “we would find so many other details that would change our perception of the object we were looking at.”

Badger now believes that studying and describing paintings can help him and his colleagues do better police work, so later this month, many of the 40 supervisors at the New Haven department will join 17 from the Yale force at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) in a program designed to sharpen their attention to fine visual details.

The phenomenon isn’t confined to New Haven: police from New York City to London’s Scotland Yard are looking at art to become better cops, thanks to a program developed in 1997 at the School of Medicine when Professor of Dermatology Irwin M. Braverman, M.D., and Linda K. Friedlaender, M.S., the YCBA’s curator of education, arrived at the same idea from opposite directions.

Worried that observational skills that are best honed in direct doctor-patient interaction might be waning in an era of laboratory tests, electronic monitors and medical imaging, Braverman wondered if looking closely at art might help young physicians be better observers in the clinic. “Physicians were losing this ability that they all had, and all used, 50 years ago,” he says.

At about the same time, Friedlaender had a disappointing experience at the hospital when she saw that a resident examining a friend of hers prior to surgery failed to notice obvious signs that the patient was agitated. Friedlaender told this story to her friend Braverman, and the program, called Enhancing Observational Skills, was born soon after.

The YCBA, the final work of acclaimed architect Louis I. Kahn, houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. Each spring, Yale medical students visit the museum for three hours to study and describe paintings, and they then apply their enriched observational vocabulary to images of human skin lesions they are likely to encounter in the clinic.

The program, now required of all first-year students as part of the Preclinical Clerkship course directed by Professor of Medicine Margaret J. Bia, M.D., has proven so successful that two dozen other medical schools have adapted it to fit their own curricula. And educators in professions from law enforcement to business are following suit, putting to work Braverman and Friedlaender’s art-based approach to refining powers of observation.

Yale School of Management Dean Joel M. Podolny, Ph.D., thought business students also could learn how to size up a situation by looking at art, so as part of their orientation last August newly arrived Yale business students paid a visit to the YCBA.

With Friedlaender’s advice, Amy Herman, J.D., M.A., head of education at the Frick Collection in New York, is offering a variation on the program, using her museum’s portraits to teach observation skills to about 200 medical students a year drawn from Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and New York University School of Medicine.

Two years ago, Herman invited members of the New York City Police Department to take similar training, and 500 city cops attended sessions at the Frick last year. The resulting publicity, including a front page story in The Wall Street Journal, brought an invitation to Herman to deliver a presentation on the method at Scotland Yard.

According to Friedlaender, the New Haven police will apply their new descriptive skills to photos of street scenes, not skin lesions.

“This exercise may encourage officers to consider how the museum looking experience might impact their professional duties,” Friedlaender says, adding, “I’m sure they could teach me a thing or two.”