Belgian police employ blind officers to analyze wiretap recordings

Published 31 October 2007

As wiretapping of potential criminal and terrorist-related activity in Belgium grows, so is the need of the Belgian police for individuals with acute and sensitive hearing to analyze wiretaps; police found that some blind individuals have that extra sensitivity to sounds which allows them better to analyze wiretaps

The Belgian police employs six blind officers in a special unit specializing in transcribing and analyzing wiretap recordings in criminal investigations. One of them is Sacha van Loo, who has been blind since birth.

The International Herald Tribune’s Dan Bilefsky writes that van Loo is an accomplished linguist who taught himself Serbo-Croat for fun. His sense of hearing is so acute 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 tell 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 says he has a “library of accents in his head,” listened and deduced he was Albanian, a fact confirmed after his arrest.

Being blind has forced me to develop my other senses, and my power as a detective rests in my ears,” he told Bilefsky. “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.”

The blind police unit became operational in June. It originated after van Thielen heard about a blind police officer in the Netherlands, and was looking at ways to improve community outreach. He told Bilefsky that 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.