Move over Poirot: Belgium recruits blind detectives to help fight crime

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Hercule Poirot, the most famous – albeit fictional – Belgian detective, jauntily swings a mahogany cane topped with a gold-plated miniature telescope as he concentrates his little grey cells on unravelling the mysteries before him. The country's latest, real-life police recruits prefer a white stick, however.

The six blind or visually-impaired detectives are the country's newest weapon in the fight against terrorism, drug-trafficking and organised crime and form a ground-breaking unit dedicated to listening to phone-tapping evidence and bugged conversations.

Not only can they separate individual voices from a cacophony of sound but they can also pick up on clues which sighted officers might miss – whether a suspect is talking in a railway station or a restaurant, whether the caller is using a landline or a mobile phone and, in very rare cases, whether the hum of a car engine comes from a BMW or a Citroë*.

"Being blind means you have to develop your other senses, so I hear things that for other people simply blend into the background," explained Alain Thonet, one of the recruits working out of the federal police headquarters in Brussels. Right on cue, he suddenly turns to a sighted colleague in the room to tell him that his phone is ringing in an office three doors down the hall. Once it is pointed out, you can hear the faintest of sounds but, were it not for Mr Thonet's super-sensitive ears, no one else would have paid it any attention.

The pioneering team was set up partly in response to the Belgian government passing a law which gave the police greater powers to use wiretaps in investigations. But the legislation also insisted that every wiretap had to be fully transcribed, a time-consuming process. Now Mr Thonet and his colleagues, using adapted Braille keyboards and voice-activated software, are easing that burden.

It is a win-win situation. Mr Thonet, who was born with only 10 per cent vision before going totally blind when he was 12, is university-educated but until now has had enormous trouble finding work. "I would get offered lots of first-round interviews but then they would see I was blind," he said. "This is the first time I have been judged on my abilities and not on my vision. It's a way for me to enter the world of Mr and Mrs Normal."

He added: "What needs to change is people's mentality. When people see blind people in a concrete work environment, it is easier for them to envisage a similar thing in their own workplace. Clearly, I'm not going to go to the airport and fly a 747 or turn up at the operating theatre and perform surgery. But there are lots of jobs where it is possible to hire a blind person with small adaptations like the Braille buttons we have in the elevator here." Over in the Flemish part of Belgium, Sacha van Loo is at work on the latest batch of wiretap recordings which have come into the main police station in Antwerp. He has been working with the unit for five months and his acute sense of hearing, as well as the fact he is fluent in seven languages and has a library of many more dialects in his head, has already proven invaluable in obtaining vital clues. In one investigation, police had identified a drug smuggler as Moroccan from a poor-quality recording but, once Mr van Loo listened to it, he knew at once that the speaker was Albanian.

The 36-year-old is currently working on adding another weapon to his wire-tapping arsenal – training himself to deduce what number is being called just from listening to the tones of telephone dialling pips.

But he is modest about his contributions, saying: "I am not here to single-handedly solve the cases. I like to think of it more as an administrative role. What I do will not necessarily lead to the crucial breakthrough but I help fill in pieces of the jigsaw." Like his Francophone counterparts, he sees himself as part of a wider battle. "People are afraid of employing blind people. I want to knock down these kinds of prejudices and widen people's perspective, not just in the police force but in all fields."

The Belgian police were astounded by the response their adverts for blind applicants generated. Although the first unit could take only six people when it launched in June, there are plans to expand it next year. Non-seeing recruits are protected by a special status that grants then police powers but bars them from making arrests or carrying guns.

That has not stopped Mr van Loo from getting his sighted colleagues to give him some supervised, off-the-job weapons training. On a wall behind his desk, a bullet-riddled practice target of a potential assassin is proudly displayed. "I did not see, but I definitely felt, my fellow officers go rather pale," he jokes, recalling his time on the shooting range with a trainer guiding his hands. "My instructor's verdict? There are colleagues that do a lot worse."