Sheila Stephens: Camera Surveillance


Sheila L. Stephens was the first female Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) special agent in the state of Alabama – one of the first in the nation.  Recruited by ATF while a police officer in Mountain Brook, Alabama, she has a unique platform from which to write and speak about the people and issues of law enforcement.

Stephens is a graduate of The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Alabama State Trooper Academy and the University of Alabama, holding degrees in Deaf Education and in Criminal Justice.  In September 2007, she graduated from Boston University with a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice.   She is presently enrolled in a Clinical Psychology PhD program and will specialize in Forensic Psychology. 

While a special agent with ATF, she was a member of the National Response Team, a select group of first responders to arson and explosives scenes.   Also chosen as a representative to the multi-agency, multi-state offensive against a deadly white supremacy group in Arkansas, she participated as a member of the entry team, the search team and the select interview team. 

She holds certificates in the areas of Education, Interviewing/Interrogation, Hypnosis, and Street Survival.  She has taught at the Birmingham Police Academy, and is the owner and operator of a security and private investigative agency specializing in hidden camera technology for police departments, businesses, and the monitoring of care-givers.  She is presently an Adjunct Criminal Justice Professor at, the online, Andrew Jackson University.  In September 2008, she will begin her adjunct teaching position at Boston University’s online Criminal Justice program.

While on injury leave from ATF, she was poisoned with arsenic and mercury.   Although not expected to recover, she continued to write and study.  As she recovered, she began speaking, sharing the same information on law enforcement issues that she presents at organizations and conferences around the country today.  She recently presented The “CSI Effect” on Crime Labs at the New England School of Law, and wrote an article that appears in their Law Review.  As to her books, in August 2008, The Everything Private Investigation Book will be released, and The Book of Weapons, Technology and Surveillance is scheduled to be released by Writer’s Digest Books in 2009.

Prevented from returning to ATF by her injury, Stephens has incorporated her private investigation/security business and is working on a non-profit division.  A popular speaker on literacy, and an advocate for mandatory heavy metals testing at yearly physicals and in emergency rooms, she is also Associate Editor of The Agent, the newsletter of the National Association of Federal Agents (NAFA).  Finally, she is a member of the National Association of Investigative Specialists (NAIS), Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and the author’s and speakers’ association, The Crime Lab Project. 

Sheila Stephens:

Technology changes every day.  One area used by law enforcement and P.I.s alike is the covert, or hidden, camera.  Covert cameras have become smaller and are hidden in more inventive items than ever before. Prices have also been lowered. You can purchase a covert camera in almost anything – clocks, VCRs, air purifiers, sprinklers, exits signs, speakers, books, plants, and much more. Cameras in pens, eyeglasses, hats, briefcases, and the like can be carried on your person. Many companies will install cameras in anything you wish. The best improvement in decades is the availability of cameras and recorders, with batteries to power them, all contained in one unit.

In the past, investigators were forced to be very creative when installing stationary covert cameras because of the problem of hiding and powering a recording device. Now, many recorders power themselves and the camera to which they’re attached, so there are no wires to camouflage. Because of this, these cameras can be moved around easily.

Wireless Versus Wired

You might ask about wireless cameras, thinking they have the same capabilities as wired cameras. They do, but there have always been drawbacks to wireless transmission. Some of these follow:

  • Other wireless devices can and do interfere with wireless transmission. Devices such as portable phones, some cable connections, microwaves, and other items can render wireless cameras almost useless.
  • Wireless transmission depends, usually, on line of sight
  • Transmission is limited to a fixed distance between transmitter and camera receiver. Usually, the distance is very short. Only law enforcement personnel are allowed to use wireless transmission that extends far enough for a backup team to be inconspicuous.

Covert cameras can be placed in hospital rooms to monitor nursing personnel and in nurseries and other locations for checking on nannies and babysitters. They can also be used to prove spousal abuse. One woman contracted with my PI service to help prove that her husband had abused her.  The man’s behavior escalated and the client was afraid that the next beating would kill her. Worse, she was terrified that her children would be hurt. My investigators installed a covert camera inside a speaker in her living room where most of the incidents took place. Two days after, the man arrived home intoxicated and beat his wife with both fists until she passed out. She was admitted to the hospital, this time with internal bleeding, while an investigator retrieved the recording and delivered it to police. Because of evidence on the covert camera, the husband is in prison today. The client has returned to school and she and her children are in counseling.  This kind of case is so difficult to prove in court. For without video evidence it becomes a “he said/she said” situation which, unfortunately, can come down to who has the best attorney or court connections – it can come down to the makeup of the jury.

Mobile Covert Cameras

Only a few years ago, if investigators wanted to wear a covert body camera, it entailed finding a way to conceal a not-so-small video recorder on his person and inconspicuously run wires to a camera, such as a pen, pager, or glasses case, in the PI’s pocket. Because of this, every shirt, jacket, and pair of jeans or slacks contained a hole for threading a line to the covert camera. Things are different today; it’s much easier and less conspicuous to wear covert technology.  I still have a scar from wearing a “wire” in the late eighties when I was with ATF.  The wire malfunctioned and burned through to my skin.  I made the case but, before backup could arrive, everyone in the room sniffed around and made faces trying to find that unusual smell. That smell was me – roasting – plus the smell of the malfunctioning wire.

Covert body cameras can be used to check someone’s mate and in mystery shopping, but there are other uses for these cameras. PIs who investigate childcare or eldercare facilities and treatment centers use them when interviewing. The camera records exactly what is in front of it. It can’t be accused of overstating the truth or omitting facts. The PI walks around filming, checking the cleanliness of the child’s or elder’s room, common areas, restrooms, and kitchens. The camera is unemotional when watching for the response of personnel – or lack of response – to a child’s or elder’s needs and requests. As in the case of the abused wife, recorded evidence in cases such as these are rarely challenged.  Stationary covert cameras can be left in the room to film what hapens long after the investigator is gone.

Covert Vs Visible Cameras

Many camera purchasers, and even investigators, believe that visible cameras are superior to hidden cameras. This may have been true in the past, but not any more. Visible cameras serve a purpose, but only when they are used correctly and in conjunction with covert cameras. Some security experts believe that because visible cameras are so prevalent, most people forget about them. However, the person who enters an office or retail store with the intention of stealing is keenly aware of these cameras. Potential shoplifters scope them out to ascertain location, distance apart, and possible blind spots between them. In the very misinformed businesses where the owner or operator displays the camera view to the public on a monitor or TV, he’s helping the thief locate those blind spots within which he can operate.

An example of the use of blind spots occurred in a parking garage at dusk. A young woman, Anne, walked through the dim garage toward her car, feeling safe because of visible security cameras spaced equal distances apart on concrete pillars. She waved at one of them. Suddenly, she was pulled into a corner of the deck and brutally raped. After crawling into the main area of the parking garage, Anne was rescued by a distraught security guard. When she was interviewed in the hospital, she reported looking up at all those cameras and wondering why no one came to her assistance. She’d been dragged into a blind spot where she and her attacker weren’t visible to even one of the cameras. The attacker had obviously scoped out the area ahead of time, knowing just where to commit his crime.

Owners and managers often purchase cameras thinking they will deter theft. Cameras may deter the basically honest soul who experiences a momentary temptation, but nothing really deters the serious criminal. Hidden cameras are the alternative for this person. If covert cameras were to be placed strategically among the visible ones, even if a sign were posted alerting the public of this fact, criminals may be deterred, not knowing where their actions could be documented. I prefer covert cameras alone, however. Hidden cameras catch people in the act of a crime, preventing loss from habitual shoplifters as well as employees.  

There are laws governing how and where these cameras can be used – but that’s another blog!  Short story is that they cannot be used any where someone would have a LEGAL expectation of privacy. 

You can visit Sheila at Website:

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Literary Agent Lucienne Diver: It’s All About The Buzz


Lucienne Diver has been an agent with Spectrum Literary Agency for over fifteen years, representing all kinds of commercial fiction, including fantasy, romance, mystery/suspense, science fiction, some mainstream and young adult.  Her authors include Marjorie M. Liu, Susan Krinard, Rachel Caine, P.N. Elrod, Roberta Gellis and many others.  A complete list can be seen on the website:


She also maintains her own blog of agently, authorial and personal ramblings at  (Since she’s often asked: “varkat” is short for “various Katherines” – Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, Kit from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, etc. – some of her favorite characters from literature.)



 It’s all about the Buzz 

One of the most constantly asked questions out there is “What can I do to promote my books?”  No one seems to have the magical answer, though there are a ton of ideas out there, some of which I’ll get into here.  The truth is that the biggest seller of books continues to be word of mouth, so the very most important thing an author can do is write a kick-butt book that will have everyone raving – to their friends, on-line, in reviews on Amazon and 


Of course, before you can get people raving, you have to get them to pick up the book.   There’s a whole lot that the publisher can do for you, like arrange coop advertising, which is basically the publisher paying for placement, whether on shelves or in special display stands in the front of stores.  A publisher may also arrange for book tours, radio and television interviews, magazine, newspaper and banner ads to get the word out.  Except for the coop advertising, these are things an author can do on his or her own, especially with the help of a publicist, though they can be very costly and must still be coordinated with the publisher to avoid stepping on any toes.


So, how can you get the most bang out of your marketing dollar? It’s pretty commonly accepted that a new author will put the advance for his or her first book back into promotion.  It makes sense; it’s an investment in the future.  Many established writers also put a lot of time and resources into publicity.  One of the most effective means of promotion is the web.  However, just having a site isn’t enough these days.  It’s great if people already know you and just want to check when your next book is coming out, but to draw readers in, you need good and changing content – contests, a blog, maybe helpful articles and links, book trailers, snippets of fiction or non-fiction free to your readers that they can’t find anywhere else.  Invite in guest bloggers.  The key is to give something, not just expect to get something with a “Hey, buy my book.”  It also helps to reach out rather than wait for folks to come to you.  Sites like MySpace, Facebook, Shelfari, Bebo (I could go on all day with the list) will introduce you to other readers and writers.  They can be fantastic networking tools, but can also be highly addictive, so be sure not to use the time you should spend writing!  The trick is that you get out of these sites what you put into them.  Interaction is key.


Another great and relatively inexpensive way to go is to kind of create your own celebrity status.  Humbly and informatively (no bragging allowed), let your college, high school or local paper know about your upcoming release or your recent award nomination.  Even before your book comes out, you should be working on a list of contacts – places, people, communities to which you have ties and some local or other cachet.  Prep your pitch, press release or postcards to go out to these venues.  Local book stores, libraries – sure, put them on the mailing list and make sure that it goes out early enough (a few months before publication with maybe a second mailing just as the book hits shelves) for them to place orders.  At the very least, it’s not a terribly expensive way to get the word out.  At the most, you’ll generate more orders and interest.


Do you go to conventions?  Can you think of something beyond the standard bookmarks and postcards to put on the take-tables that people will keep and think of you with each use?  Have you come up with an intriguing tagline or catch-phrase?  Maybe you can even send your novelty item out with your mailings.


Signings – the trick with signings is that it really helps if you have a) a really strong following or b) a gimmick to bring people over to the table.  Otherwise, it might look a lot like that book signing at the beginning of the recent movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  Maybe give a talk or reading to go along with the signing.  Have a friend along, maybe, who’s standing, approachable and shilling (pleasantly and chattily), have a candy dish out and a poster or something else outsized to draw the eye.  Try to make it an event rather than just you with the barrier of a table separating you from your target audience.  Offer to sign stock of whatever doesn’t sell so the store can put your books up front with “Autographed” stickers attached.  In fact, whenever you step into a bookstore and find your books, offer to sign stock.  Some bookstores are, surprisingly, less open to this than others, but persevere. 


Always, but always, have your business cards with you.  You never know when a networking opportunity will arise.  I was just on a pub crawl in London and ended up “selling” my books to everyone in sight.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a single card on hand to help folks remember. 


In summary – write the best darned book you can and then get the word out.  If someone lets you know how much they enjoy your book, ask them to share the excitement.  Get a buzz going and then keep up the momentum by writing your next great work!







Tomorrow –  Author/former ATF Special Agent Sheila Stephens talks about hidden cameras


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What Is An Arrest?








* Tomorrow – Literary Agent Lucienne Diver On Creating Buzz

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Weekend Road Trip: Capitola, California


Capitola, California is located in Santa Cruz County on Monterey Bay. In the early 1960s, a large group of normally passive birds began attacking Capitola residents and tourists.

Nearby Santa Cruz was a favorite vacation spot for a well-known movie director. He’d read about the bird attacks and decided to make a movie about it. The director’s name was Alfred Hitchcock. The movie…The Birds.






One of my favorite spots in the world…

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