Braille Monitor                                                     December 2007

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A Blind Sherlock Holmes: Fighting Crime with Acute Listening

by Dan Bilefsky

From the Editor: The following story appeared on Monday, October 29, 2007, in the International Herald Tribune. The view of blindness it expresses is in some ways startlingly different from American expectations of normal competence for blind people, but despite the limitations accepted by everyone as part of being blind, a new job for blind people seems to have been established in Belgium. Here is the story:

Sacha van Loo, thirty-six, 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, whose 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 limitations," 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 Serbo 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 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."

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 thirty-seven 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 Grignard, 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, including one so-called 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 officer with a special 10,000 computer equipped with a Braille keyboard 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 at 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."

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