Sheila Stephens: Camera Surveillance

Sheila Stephens


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:

Email Sheila at

19 replies
  1. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:


    That makes me so happy! Thanks for sharing that with me. Children and the elderly should be our top priorities–as well as animals.

    Those who can’t protect themselves, human or animal, should elicit our deepest compassion and our aid. There’s nothing more inhuman than ignoring them, at least to me.

  2. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:


    Thanks so much. I am committed to safety. Especially the safety of children. I’m working on a non-profit and Lee and I are considering collaboration on a project for children’s safety.

    If we don’t stop this cycle of abuse and neglect, not only will more children suffer but we will all suffer.

  3. Elena
    Elena says:

    Thank you for your SpyTek website – I’ve passed it on to a friend in her 60’s who is suffering from severe short term memory loss after being hit by a car when she was riding her bicycle. And, she was wearing a top rated helmet – you just never know.

    A recorder in a watch might be a wonderful aid for her since she would be unlikely to lose it during the day as she has with handheld devices.

  4. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Thank you for some great information Sheila ! Close to nine o clock now, I am finally able to bounce back in for a sec. Those sites you sent are amazing. So much in something so small. You seem compassionate about safty. Very cool.

  5. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:


    These are almost always digital cameras. They record from 1.5 hours to 9.43 hours, and some even longer. You can download to your computer and many come with SD chips to increase the time of recording.

    If you’re interested in seeing what one of your characters could really be using in the way of covert video see my sites: and

    Contact me if you have any questions. Also, I understand what you mean when you say this is both interesting and scary. It’s scary to think that we could be under surveillance and not even know it. In the wrong hands, this stuff is frightening. But, if the good guys don’t have access to the same technology then we’re really in trouble. My P.I. company has put people in jail for abusing spouses, children and the elderly, for stealing from their employers and others, and for many other crimes–and the government is using this and other technological wonders to combat terrorism. It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

    Besides, we’re being tracked more than we know. Even your printer tracks you. Paper printed from it can be traced back. More about this in my upcoming book from Writer’s Digest (the same series as Lee’s) The Book of Weapons, Surveillance and Technology. We’re not sure of the exact title yet, but it’s something like this.

  6. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:


    Well, you tried. Sometimes that’s the best way to get information–go right to the source, even as it’s in operation. Your experience shows the parameters of their surveillance system, doesn’t it?

  7. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Wow ! I too am out of breath just trying to keep up with you Sheila.

    This is both interesting and scary all in one. If a camera can be small enough for a clock or speaker or pen (!) where is the film ? Are chips that small now ? Also for what length of time will they record ?

    Well done Lee, you have done it again.

  8. Wilfred Bereswill
    Wilfred Bereswill says:

    I did a little research at a casino in St. Louis. I tried the proper channels and basically kept running into the Public Relations department that would never call me back.

    I decided to do things differently. I took some money, and walked around, playing a slot or two. I checked out all the black domes in the ceiling. Then I plopped down at the 3rd base position at a Blackjack table. Ten minutes or so in, I noticed the pit boss standing right next to me and I struck up a conversation.

    He asked me a number of questions, I kind of had the feeling it was an interview. I passed him a business card and told him I was an author and I was working on a casino scene and asked if he could talk about the surveillance system. Next thing I knew was several suited gentlemen were standing behind me and I was asked to follow them. The pit boss kindly offered to hold my chips and my seat.

    They took me to another man who asked me, very politely, what he could do for me. I told him what I was doing and he just smiled. He said, well, let’s see, you came into the casino at whatever time, you played this slot and this slot and then you went to the bar and got a beer. Then you went to the blackjack table. Yes we do have facial recognition and now we have the file to go with your face.

    He leaned in and said, it’s not as fancy as they show on TV, then he told me to have a nice day and walked away.

  9. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:


    Hope to see you there!

    To finish answering your questions, I had a hearing impaired friend in grammar school. As to the PhD program, it will take anywhere from three to four years, depending on how quickly I can do it! Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field.

  10. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:


    Thanks for your kind words. ATF recruited me as part of a nationwide recruitment program for women. Faced with affirmative action mandates, they had to open the club and let us in. The problem was that they really didn’t want to, though the powers that be will probably never admit that. ATF still has fewer female agents than other agencies, or so I’ve been told by agents still active–I haven’t researched this myself.

    Many ATF special agents call themselves (and they’ve been called by other agencies) the door-busters. They like this image of tough, get-it-done police agents. It is very physical work sometimes and some were convinced that women could never do it. Also, the people we dealt with were not your normal criminals–they were dealing with guns, explosives and other weapons, and committing arson. Along with these crimes comes drugs, murder, etc. Especially in explosives cases, these are people who don’t want to hurt just one or two people. They want to destroy many people in one explosion. Biker gangs is an example. ATF specializes in investigating and enforcing federal laws that gangs, especially biker gangs, specialize in committing! Terrorist investigations are another ATF specialty.

    Back to recruiting. Female FBI special agents from this time will tell you the same thing: before female agents, these guys used their secretaries on undercover operations and whenever they thought a female presence would help their cover. When forced to hire female agents, they wanted these same secretaries to be converted over to 1811 special agents. See the myriad of problems here? Well, it never happened. ATF tried to find police officers with some experience and left the secretaries where they were. This made for some bad relations when female agents reported for duty, not with everyone of course, but many secretaries were not happy to see them. Lots of problems from this, at least for a while until they got used to the situation.

  11. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    By the way, Sheila and I will be on a panel together, in August, at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. We hope to see some of you there.

  12. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:

    About the legality of using surveillance cameras, whether on your person or stationary: it’s all about two things: “expectation of privacy” in the legal sense, and being where it’s legal for you to be when filming.

    You might feel that you can expect to have privacy in your car–it appears that a lot of people do, when you see what they do in their cars (remember the Seinfeld episode about the pick?)–but, you don’t have a LEGAL expectation of privacy while in your vehicle.

    Legally, your expectation of privacy extends to places such as bathrooms, bedrooms, changing rooms in stores, hotel rooms, etc. Even in your own home, the court has ruled that you’re not protected by this expectation if you leave your curtains open or shades up so that anyone can see in should they choose. This is where the second requirement comes in.

    If the person filming is standing where it’s legal for her to stand, such as the street in front of your house, and filming through this window, then she is protected by law, even if she films through a slit in the curtain. However, if she crawls across your property, stands on a trash can and films inside the window, then she’s doing it illegally. With high powered cameras on the market, today, it’s not really necessary to do this. But, these cameras are expensive, so the low-rent P.I. or peeping Tom may do this very thing.

  13. Kendra
    Kendra says:

    Sheila, you amaze me. What a jam-packed bio. I got tired while reading it. You set a great example for women interested in law enforcement.

    Why did the ATF recruit you? What was it that caught their interest? And do you have a family member who is deaf? Or friend?

    How long will you be in the PhD program?

    Lee, great guest choice!

  14. slstephensapi
    slstephensapi says:

    Sorry to be late to the party guys. I’ll try to make up for it.


    You’re so right about Casinos and their security systems. They won’t tell you anything. It’s a great idea for a blog. Facial recognition systems are fascinating. I’m working on some research for my next book about these. I’ll get back to you today with some of it.

    And, you’re right about the technology the use on TV. Much of the time it’s just made up, or if not totally made up, they take a seed of something real and adjust it to their story line.


    How I went from Deaf Ed to ATF? Well, I made a stop at a police department for several years first. It’s funny how life changes. I had always been interested in why people commit crime, but in the late seventies and early eighties it was still pretty much a man’s world so I went into education–which I also love.

    I met several cops. It was when I went with them on some of their shifts, called “drive-alongs” here, that I realized this was what I should be doing. I trained to get in shape, took the test and was hired by Mountain Brook Police Department. From there, I was recruited by ATF. There were only a few women in the entire Agency at that time–the FBI had more, but still not many. It was difficult convincing some of the “old boys” that I could do the job, but I had support from others.

    By the way, my proficiency in sign language was accepted as a foreign language with the government and came in handy on many occasions.


    I’ll get back to you on the poisoning in a bit. It’s an open case so I have to be careful what I say about it.

    School buses here also employ cameras. My company has installed them in many places. The key is knowing where it’s legal to put these things. I’ll elaborate on that in a bit also. I’m trying to catch up now.


    I’m happy that you got a story idea from this! Good luck with it.

  15. ramona
    ramona says:

    I read this and think of my brothers, and all the fun they could have with a covert camera. Notice that I’m not talking about when we were kids, either. I’m talking about now, or next Christmas holiday.

    Hmm. I think I just came up with a short story idea! Thanks, Sheila. I learned a lot this morning.

    BTW, I love the color of your blouse.

  16. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    This is facinating!

    Our police dept. relies a lot on security cameras for retail thefts, purse snatchings and gas station drive offs. We recently had an assault on a school bus where cameras recorded the incident.

    I’m interested in hearing more about your poisoning if you’re willing to share.

  17. Lynette Eason
    Lynette Eason says:

    Hi Sheila, Thank you so much for sharing such great information. I find it really interesting that you have a deaf ed degree…:) Before I started writing full time I taught at our local state deaf school. The book I just finished has a hostage situation at a residential deaf school and my main heroine is hard of hearing. Just curious how you went from deaf ed to ATF! Ha.

    Anyway, thanks again!


  18. Wilfred Bereswill
    Wilfred Bereswill says:

    Cool stuff Shiela. For my 2nd novel I have a bombing in a casino. I tried to do research on the surveillance systems they employ and found out that casino operators are very touchy about their video systems. That could/should be a blog, too.

    My biggest question was facial recognition systems. Of course, I don’t necessarily believe what they show in the TV series Las Vegas.

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