Snapshots in the Life of a Criminal Data Analyst


“This is Brian Selfon, the chief investigative analyst here.” My boss at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office is introducing me to a pair of NYPD detectives, and there’s a wink in his voice when he says this: at this moment, I’m the only investigative analyst. My team will grow over the next three years, but right now I’m chief of—my spreadsheets?

“We’re not interested in the street dealers,” my boss continues, explaining the role of our division. “We’re looking at organized crime. We’re looking at the big gun runners, rampant gang violence, the major narcotics networks. The worst of the worst—that’s what this division was made for.”

This is feels like a cue for an air punch, but when I look around, no one else is doing it, so I keep my hands to myself.

***

Part of being an investigative analyst is listening to wiretapped conversations, and part of listening to wiretapped conversations is having feelings outside your comfort zone.

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This month my assignment is G. My heart breaks for him every day. G. sounds like he lives in a state of permanent exhaustion, a condition I can relate to: my newborn, whom we’re calling the puffin, wakes me up several times a night. And why shouldn’t G be exhausted, too? The man’s hours are long and dull.

Say the words “major New York heroin distributor,” and people get excited. Listen to a major New York heroin distributor, and you realize that most of most days, he’s stuck in traffic.

This is not Scarface. No one will make a movie about G. He’s just huffing along, driving from A to B and back again. Taking shit from his buyers, taking shit from his suppliers. Trading shit with his wife, and then trying to convince his bank that he’s a repairperson.

Here’s where I come in. While the cops are in the wireroom listening live for the street hustle, I’m at my desk with my herbal tea, listening to recorded calls. Tracing the money.

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There’s no longer any question about where it’s coming from: the wireroom cops have ID’d the major buyers. My job is to figure out where it’s going.

Despite all the cash coming in, G.’s bank account activity is flat and sad, which is part of why the credit cards aren’t offering him better rates. G.’s relatives and close neighbors, meanwhile, are depositing and wiring huge amounts of cash. The tragedy is hard to miss. The people close to G., the people he’s trying to help and get help from, he’s also incriminating.

I task an analyst on my team with making a chart showing how the people and accounts are connected. I task myself with thanking her.

Meanwhile, on my lunch breaks, and at night when the puffin is asleep, and even scribbling on the subway when I can get a seat, I write and rewrite The Nightworkers. G. never appears in the book—no one real does—but when I introduce a heroin trafficker, I make sure to give him a family.

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***

T. is quite possibly the kindest man in America. Never mind that he’s imprisoned on Rikers Island for armed robbery. The puffin is teaching me to live in the present, to forgive myself and others, and I am so ready to forgive T. But will a jury?

A tip came in that a Rikers corrections officer is accepting bribes to smuggle in contraband for inmates. T. isn’t the only inmate I’m listening to, but he’s by far my favorite.

T.’s mother is, judging by their calls, the source of T.’s beautiful soul, and their connection is life-affirming. Let’s carve out, throw away, and forget the parts of the calls when he’s telling her how to wire money to the corrections officer. Most of most calls, they’re chatty, upbeat, funny, and tuned into the details of each other’s lives.

But today T. is blue. There’s conflict among the inmates, and T. is fuming about the administration. He’s going on about problems unlike any I’ve ever had, problems I hope never to experience, when he catches himself. Stops cold and then restarts.

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“Wait a minute, Mom. I’m going off about me, and I didn’t even ask about your doctor’s appointment. How did it go?”

At this I have to stop the recording. T.’s question, and the setup that led to the question, and even the phrasing of the question, make this a near perfect echo of a conversation I had with my own mother just yesterday. A strange chill is on me. I know I need to get back to listening, but I take a moment.

***

I spend most of my workdays in a windowless office listening to Duke Ellington. My three massive file cabinets contain a drawer full of sweaters, a drawer entirely devoted to ginger candy, and then a half-empty drawer that contains actual files. The overhead light is loud and blinding, so I’ve brought in a lamp and put in a dim bulb. Stains and wall scars are covered with scribbles by the puffin, doodles by the analysts on my team, and a print of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon. My office is a calm, safe place to edit videos of gunplay.

But then into this bubble comes Detective K: “You got a minute?”

I follow the detective into the hall, where I’m reminded that the division’s holiday party is still underway. There’s tinsel connecting many of the cubicles, there are cookie and cake plates on the printers and cabinets, and the Phil Spector Christmas album is playing from someone’s desk.

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The detective leads me past all this. We stop outside the conference room, where the door is open just a crack.

“So I’ve got this guy in here,” the detective says. “We’re trying to get into his Facebook account. He’s going to help us help us ID someone. You think you can help with that?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t worry,” the detective says with a half-smile, lowering his voice in the moment before he opens the door. “He may look a little whatever. But he’ll be cool with you.”

The prisoner sits with his hands cuffed before him. His fingernails are long and filthy. His clothes are also filthy, and tattered, and several sizes too big. My discomfort is so great I don’t immediately think about his discomfort, sitting handcuffed in an over-lit room, three detectives standing around him. My revulsion is so great that I don’t immediately consider that however unpleasant it may be to sit with a person in this condition, it must be inexpressibly more unpleasant to live in this condition. None of this comes to me right away, but it does come, and I look him in the eye and say, “Good afternoon.”

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Speaking in whispers, never smiling, the man gives me his Facebook account details. I log into his account, complete the research, log out, and thank the man for his help. I leave without knowing what the case is about or even what the man’s name is. I leave having been a tool.

“Coming through!”

I’m back in my office with Duke Ellington and herbal tea, but the shout brings me to my door, and here’s the man in handcuffs. He’s being led and followed by the detectives on his way to the freight elevators, which the detectives use to transport prisoners.

Freight.

On his way, the man is being made to pass the tinsel, the plates of cookies and treats.

Don’t be a tool.

I look at him straight on and give him a nod, but he goes by as if lost in himself, and though I know there’s still a person in there, in this moment he’s keeping himself away.

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***

My last trial is by far the messiest. There are four defendants, each defendant has his own attorney, and I am to be quadruple cross-examined.

The defendants are all charged with attempted murder. The story of the case is grim. There’s no denying that for jurors, though, it’s also interesting—until the analyst takes the stand.

“Mr. Selfon, did you change or alter the video in any way?”

“Kinda.”

“Can you tell us what you did?”

The quadruple cross-examination is brief. At least one of the attorneys asks me no questions. Another begins to press on my work with the video file but quickly gives up. I can’t speak to their strategy, but I can think of some questions they could’ve asked.

Would different questions have affected the outcome of the trial? I don’t think so. But shouldn’t a person who’s presumed innocent have access to someone like me, so those questions could be asked?

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These are among my thoughts as I leave the courthouse, popping in another ginger candy, not yet suspecting that six months later I’ll be facing another group of defense attorneys—the panel on my interview for a job as a public defense investigator.

***