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Angels of Silence

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 5, 2012 04:55 PM

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Violent crime in Mexico has exploded in recent years and the sensational stories spilling out of the country suggest that the police are often outmatched by the country’s merciless, cash-flush drug cartels.

These tough circumstances have pushed Mexican law enforcement to find new ways to fight crime, and one of the most innovative experiments is taking place in Oaxaca, a popular tourist destination in southeastern Mexico, which this year deployed a team of 20 deaf police officers to monitor 230 security cameras scattered throughout the city’s historic downtown.

The deaf officers, nicknamed the “Angels of Silence,” are considered an asset because of their ability to read lips, to detect visual cues that might suggest nervousness or suspicious activity, and to pay attention to the visual periphery as they stare at a wall of monitors displaying different camera feeds.

If using sensory impaired people to fight crime sounds like the premise of a superhero movie, that’s because it is. In 2003 Ben Affleck starred in a film version of the Marvel Comics series “Daredevil,” playing the title character whose remaining senses grow to superhero proportions after he is blinded by toxic waste. There is a precedent for the Oaxaca experiment in real life, too: In 2007 the New York Times ran an article about a “a blind Sherlock Holmes”—a visually impaired Belgian man named Sacha van Loo whose acute sense of hearing and knack for identifying foreign accents over wiretaps has helped Belgian police combat terrorism and organized crime.

It’s accepted in lore that losing one sense improves performance in the others, but is there scientific evidence to support that intuition? Some.

In a 2010 paper called “Neural reorganization following sensory loss: the opportunity of change,” two Harvard Medical School researchers reviewed the leading studies in this area and found that deaf people often outperform people with normal hearing in control experiments that measure skills like the ability to identify facial expressions and pay attention to the visual periphery. While researchers have not found evidence that the visual cortical areas of the brain actually expand in response to deafness, fMRI studies have revealed instances of what’s called “crossmodal recruitment”—basically when areas of the brain that used to service the diminished sense are co-opted to provide extra processing power for the senses that remain.

Though there is no specific data available, the Oaxaca project has been judged a success. Last month the first corps of deaf police officers began training new recruits who soon will be sitting behind security cameras trained on other parts of the country, including tourist-intensive destinations like Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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