for pointing out this article.
Europe has new counterterrorism weapon: Blind detectives
By Dan Bilefsky
Monday, October 29, 2007
ANTWERP, Belgium: Sacha van Loo, 36, is not your typical cop. He
wields a white cane instead of a gun. And from the purr of an engine
on a wiretap, he can discern whether a suspect is driving a Peugeot,
a Honda or a Mercedes.
Van Loo is one of Europe’s newest weapons in the global fight against
terrorism and organized crime: a blind Sherlock Holmes, who’s disability allows him to spot clues sighted detectives don’t see.
“Being blind has forced me to develop my other senses, and my power
as a detective rests in my ears,” he said from his office at the
Belgian Federal Police, where a bullet-riddled piece of paper from a
recent target-shooting session was proudly displayed on the wall.
“Being blind also requires recognizing your limitation s,” he added
with a smile, noting that a sighted trainer guided his hands during
target practice “to make sure no one got wounded.”
Van Loo, a slight man who has been blind since birth, is one of six
blind police officers in a pioneering unit specializing in
transcribing and analyzing wiretap recordings in criminal
investigations. An accomplished linguist who taught himself Serb
Croat for fun, he laments that he is not entitled to carry a gun on
the job or make arrests. But such is his acute sense of hearing that
Paul van Thielen, a director at the Belgian Federal Police, compares
his powers of observation to those of a “superhero.”
When police eavesdrop on a suspected terrorist making a phone call,
van Loo can listen to the tones dialed and immediately identify the
number. By hearing the sound of a voice echoing off of a wall, he can
deduce whether a suspect is speaking from an airport lounge or a
crowded restaurant. After the Belgian police recently spent hours
struggling to identify a drug smuggler on a faint wiretap recording,
they concluded he was Moroccan. Van Loo, who has a “library of
accents in his head,” listened and deduced he was Albanian, a fact
confirmed after his arrest.
“I have had to train my ear to know where I am. It is a matter of
survival to cross the street or get on a train,” he said. “Some
people can get lost in background noise, but as a blind man I divide
hearing into different channels. It is these details that can be the
difference between solving and not solving a crime.”
Grappling with his handicap, he says, also has given him the thick
emotional skin necessary for dealing with the job’s stresses. “I have
overheard criminals plotting to commit murder, drug dealers making
plans to drop off drugs, men beating each other up. Being blind helps
not to let it get to me because I have to be tough.”&nbs p;
The blind police unit, which became operational in June, originated
after van Thielen heard about a blind police officer in the
Netherlands, and was looking at ways to improve community outreach.
He made the connection that blind people could prove more adept than
the sighted at listening to and interpreting wiretaps. That idea, he
says, was given added impetus after the Belgian government passed a
law a few years ago giving the police extended powers to use wiretaps
in the investigation of 37 areas of crime, including terrorism,
murder, organized crime and the abduction of minors.
The police also recognized that blind officers like van Loo could be
particularly valuable in counterterrorism investigations because
wiretap recordings – derived from a phone tap or bug placed in the
safe house of a terrorist group – are often muffled by loud
background noise, requiring a highly trained ear to discern voices.
Alain Grign ard, a senior counterterrorism officer at the Brussels
Federal Police, notes that wiretaps proved instrumental in the recent
arrests of a large terrorist cell in Belgium recruiting for the
insurgency in Iraq.
Beyond his keenly developed ears, van Loo is also a trained
translator who speaks seven languages, including Russian and Arabic –
a skill Grignard said makes him indispensable, since his knowledge of
accents can help him to differentiate between, say, an Egyptian or
Moroccan suspect. “You need every edge in a terrorism investigation,
and a blind officer with languages could be a powerful weapon.”
The Belgian police say they were amazed at the number of qualified
blind applicants for the posts. Scoring high marks on a hearing test
was a prerequisite for the job, as was being at least 33 percent
blind. Van Thielen, the police chief, says he was forced to turn away
dozens of applicants whose sight was too good, inc luding one “blind”
man who shocked police recruiters by arriving at his interview in a car.
Recruiting blind people posed other challenges, van Thielen recalls.
Because they would be used almost exclusively for wiretap
investigations and the force did not want to expose them to dangerous
situations, they were given special status under a 2006 law tailored
for forensic work that grants civilians some police powers, but
forbids them from making arrests or carrying guns.
Van Thielen, a no-nonsense police veteran, also faced some resistance
from other veterans on the force, who feared that having blind
colleagues would be a burden. Others felt awkward about how to behave
in front of blind people and wondered if saying “au revoir” –
literally “see you again” – would cause offense. To assuage their
concerns, van Thielen arranged for sensitivity training sessions with
blind volunteers. One hint: don’t leave computer cables trailing on
the floor since blind officers could trip on them.
“At first when members of the police heard that blind people were
coming to work here, they laughed and told me that we were a police
force and not a charity,” said van Thielen. “But attitudes changed
when the blind officers arrived and showed their determination to
work hard and be useful.”
It wasn’t only attitudes that needed updating. In addition to
installing elevators with voice-activated buttons at the police
station, the force issued each blind officers with a special ?10,000
computer equipped with Braille keyboards, and a voice system that
transmits visual images into sound.
As van Loo transcribed a wiretap recording on a recent day, he wore
earphones and passed his index finger over a long strip of Braille
characters on the bottom of the keyboard, whose characters altered to
replicate whatever was on his computer screen, which was turned off.
When he goes outside, he carries a compact police-issued global
positioning system device, with a voice that directs him to his
destination, street by street.
A father of two, van Loo attributes his success to having parents who
taught him at an early age to be independent. He recalls that, as a
young child, his father, a film buff, took him to watch movies. His
father also taught him to drive a car by hoisting him on his lap and
guiding his hands on the steering wheel. His ability to adapt, he
says, was further reinforced by his attending a regular high school.
He also attended a special school for the blind, where he learned how
to maneuver with a cane and to read Russian in Braille. To relax, he
skis, rides horses and plays the Arabic lute.
“My parents accepted my blindness, which also helped me to accept
it,” he said. “That they were not risk averse also helped.”
Cindy Gribomont, head of training a t the Brussels-based Braille
League, an institute for the blind that helped the police with
recruiting, says that overcoming employers’ prejudices is her
greatest challenge. “Employers need to be encouraged because they are
afraid of employing handicapped people.”
Van Loo, for his part, says he remains determined not to let his
handicap overwhelm him. “Being blind isn’t always very easy,” he
said. “I don’t focus on it. I don’t deny it. But it is rather tragic
that a blind policeman is still viewed as an exception.”
What do you all think of this? Would it be possible for this to happen here? Let me know what you think.