November 23, 2007

ANTWERP, Belgium – Sacha van Loo 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, drug trafficking and organized crime: a blind Sherlock Holmes whose disability allows him to pick up clues sighted detectives can't.

“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, 36, 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 surveillance recordings in criminal investigations. An accomplished linguist who speaks seven languages, he laments that he is not entitled to carry a gun on the job or to make arrests.

But his sense of hearing is so acute that Paul van Thielen, a director at the Belgian Federal Police, compared his powers of observation to those of a superhero.

When the police eavesdrop on a suspected terrorist making a phone call, van Loo can identify the number instantly by listening to the tones. 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 spent hours struggling to identify a drug smuggler on a faint wiretap recording, they concluded he was Moroccan. Van Loo listened and deduced that the man was Albanian; the arrest proved him right.

“I have had to train my ear to know where I am,” van Loo said. “It is a matter of survival to cross the street or get on a train. Some people can get lost in background noise, but as a blind man I divide hearing into different channels.”

Grappling with his blindness, he says, has also 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,” van Loo said. “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 for ways to improve community outreach. He hoped that blind people would prove more adept than the sighted at listening to surveillance recordings and interpreting them.

The police also recognized that blind officers like van Loo could be particularly valuable in counterterrorism investigations because surveillance recordings 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, noted that wiretaps proved instrumental in the recent arrests of a large terrorist cell in Belgium that was recruiting for the insurgency in Iraq.

The Belgian police said they were amazed at the number of qualified blind applicants for the six posts in the unit. Scoring high on a hearing test was a prerequisite, as was being at least 33 percent blind.

Van Thielen, the police chief, said he had to turn away dozens of applicants whose sight was too good.