Belgium's Blind Crime Fighters

Sacha Van Loo isn't allowed to carry a gun, but he is one of Belgium's finest weapons against drug-related criminality.

Van Loo, 36, has been blind since birth, and because of the acute sense of hearing he developed to overcome his disability, he was chosen among dozens of applicants to be the ears of the Belgian federal police.

Police recruited six blind men, including Van Loo, after observing early experiments in neighboring Netherlands.

Their mission is to transcribe and analyze wiretap recordings and real-time telephone conversations. They investigate some of the country's most critical issues including drug trafficking and prostitution.

The transcriptions are used as evidence for criminal investigations and Van Loo's highly trained ears have proven to be a valuable asset.

"They can hear things that you and I cannot," Paul Van Thielen, director general of the Judicial Federal Police, told ABC News. "They are particularly effective analysing background noises. For instance, they can tell whether a conversation has taken place in an airport or a train station."

"I have been trained in echo location," Van Loo told ABC News. "I can hear the way a sound bounces off a wall or another object. I use this ability in everyday life. I just kept on doing it for my work."

Besides recognizing background noises and echoes, Van Loo is also an outstanding linguist.

Raised in a family in which he spoke several languages, Van Loo today speaks Flemish, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Hungarian, Romanian, Farsi, and is learning Arabic.

Van Loo can also precisely identify accents and dialects.

Despite his outstanding talents, Van Loo tries to keep a low profile. Call him a hero, and he shrugs it off.

"When I hear people saying I am the blind Sherlock Holmes," said Van Loo, "it makes me laugh."

"All we do is an administrative job," he said.

Van Loo even thinks that his unusual ability to recognize accents or background noises is not a gift, but just a matter of training.

"Anyone can develop those talents. The difference is that I did not have the choice to do it, I was forced to develop them to survive."

When you can't see, said Van Loo, you must be able to know whether there is a wall in front of you — just by the click of your stick on the ground.

At school and at home, Van Loo developed the skills and the mindset that helped him become the highly skilled professional he is today.

"My parents helped me overcome my handicap by accepting it," said Van Loo. "Many blind people have problems with their handicap because [they] did not talk about it."

"My parents," said Van Loo, "were realistic. They told me, 'OK, you are blind. There are some limitations, but it is still possible for you to explore new territories."

Had Van Loo always wanted to be a cop? Well, almost.

"One of my first dreams," said Van Loo, "was to be a pilot, but of course people convinced me quickly that this would not be possible. Then it became clear that I wanted to be an interpreter. I have always wanted to work with languages and I wanted to work with the police."

Van Loo started working in law enforcement as an interpreter, which made him an obvious candidate for the new police unit that was set up in June.

"I really felt like I was part of the team from the first moment I came here," said Van Loo. "We were not these blind handicapped people for whom they had to find a place. They really accepted us for what we were, for our abilities and our work."

This smooth integration was the result of two years of hard work and preparation.

"It is not easy at first to accept the idea that a blind man can work as a policeman," said Van Thielen, director general of the Belgian Judicial Federal Police.

The police officers who are now working with Van Loo were coached by the Ligue Braille, an institute specialized in training blind people and creating blind-friendly work environments.

"We had to put people at ease," said Cindy Gribomont, a trainer with the Ligue Braille. "Many of the policemen were embarrassed to use the verb 'see' in front of blind people."

"We learned that it's not a problem at all to say see you later to a blind man," said Van Thielen.

The Ligue also had to customize law enforcement equipment for the new visually impaired officers.

"Computers are the same," said Gribomont, "but they don't use their mouse or their screen. They have a special Braille, bar which allows them to read what's on the screen."

They also use speaker phones to "read" their screen and a special device that prints out the characters in Braille.

Six months after the blind unit was set up, Van Thielen is very satisfied with initial results.

The blind police officers are "courageous and positive," said Thielen, "and they do a job that no one else could do as well as them. There is no doubt that we will keep on working with them."

"The question now," said Thielen, "is whether we can hire others."

It's a cause that is close to Van Loo's heart.

"In Belgium, it's very difficult for blind people to find a job," said Van Loo. "Not every single blind person should work for the police, but there are jobs in which blind people could be very useful."

"I know very gifted blind people, who are very good with computers and should normally find a job immediately, but employers are afraid to hire them."