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Blind Officers Helping to Combat Crime in Belgium

Belgium's federal police recently recruited its first group of blind officers to listen in on phone taps and interrogations in search of clues that seeing colleagues might miss.

So far, the "listening squad" includes six blind or visually impaired recruits, but there are plans to employ as many as 30. In this report, Nina-Maria Potts talked to one of Belgium's newest crime fighters.

A braille keyboard, a pair of headphones and a computer screen.

With these tools alone, Sasha -- who does not want us to use his last name -- can track top international criminal suspects.

Sasha speaks seven languages and has been blind since birth. "For me, the human voice has always been very important," he says. "I can say the most important thing because the voice can tell you very much and it's also one of the most unique things that exists I think. I mean it's like a fingerprint. Every human being has a different voice which is totally unique and not to be compared with other voices."

Belgium's strict privacy laws mean the police need a judge's approval for every wiretap they want to run.

Sasha's work is so sensitive his computer screen is blank, so seeing people cannot read what he types.

Sasha is one of six new police recruits who are either blind or visually challenged. He often looks for what others might miss.” I also keep attention to sounds at the back, not just the pure conversation but I always try to hear where are people, I mean are they in a station, are they in an apartment, are they in a big room?"

Sasha is teaching himself Arabic with a view to doing more counterterrorism work.

Chief Superintendent David Vroome heads up the squad. He says nothing else in Europe compares with its scope. " We are not talking about burglary of course. In Belgian law, it's stipulated for, to, be able to run a tap, you have to deal with serious criminality. So we are talking about criminal organizations, let's say the mob. We're talking about counterterrorism, we're talking about big banditism, about the smuggling of people, and so it's always big issues, that they are working with big international connections."

The European Union now boasts 27 member countries, with the recent addition of Romania and Bulgaria.

Cross-border migration has prompted an urgent need for more language skills in the police force.

Vroome says of the immigration, “So this brings in a good many nice, hard working people and also, you always have that in great masses, there are also people who come here with less good intentions. These people have their languages, these languages aren't really known here and we don't have a lot of interpreters to translate these languages. Now the blind people have a capacity which is enormous to be able to have an ear for languages."

Vroome says his team received special training on how to treat blind colleagues.

Sasha adds he has never felt more at home. "I've had some other working experience, but I've never experienced this kind of helpfulness, without being -- how shall I say, I've never felt a kind of attitude like, 'Oh, this poor blind [person] we have to help him.' There has been from the beginning a very strong feeling of respect."

And this is not just a public relations exercise. Superintendent Vroome says it is too soon to say whether the program is affecting arrest rates, but the feedback from the listening chambers is good.

For Sasha, feeling respected for his language skills in the fight against crime is satisfaction enough.