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

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Existing Customer Telephone Consultants

£13000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Every day they get another 1000...

Recruitment Genius: Contract Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line IT Support / Senior Engineer / Support Analyst

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor