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. She has a unique platform from which to write and teach about the people and issues of law enforcement. She holds an MS in Criminal Justice and is obtaining a PhD in Forensic Psychology. She is a criminal justice professor, a private investigator, consultant and author. Her Everything Book of Private Investigation is a wonderful reference for all types of investigations. Stephens shares the advantages to researchitus, what it was like to become the first female Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) special agent in the state of Alabama, as well as offering advice for aspiring writers. She will be speaking at, and attending, Killer Nashville 2010 this weekend.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SS: I was a dreamy child who read a lot. As my father was a trouble shooter for a large corporation, my family moved a lot. I was always the new girl and tended to escape into books. Those who knew me as a shy child would not recognize me now! I also wrote little books, complete with illustrations, and made everyone around me read them. I’m sure it was irritating as could be, but no one refused me a reading.
I wanted to be so many things. I am one of those people with more interests than time to accomplish what I want. I never thought about being a law enforcement officer, though! That one snuck up on me.
PC: What drew you into the world of law enforcement?
SS: I married young, divorced young and was left with a mortgage on a hearing impaired/special education teacher’s salary—which at that time was not nearly as good as present day pay rates.
While dating a teacher who was also a police reserve officer, I became interested in his work. The stories he would tell! He made it sound much more interesting than education. I trained while waiting for the results of the police test and, after several months, was able to choose my department—against the oft expressed wishes of friends and family. Eventually, they stopped being afraid for me. Dad even joked that he had either done something very right or very wrong, having produced a son who was a nurse (anesthetist) and a daughter who was a cop.
PC: You were the first female Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) special agent in the state of Alabama, and one of the first in the nation. Will you share a little of what it was like to be in such a unique position?
SS: Where to begin? I loved my position as an ATF Special Agent. While not as daily exciting as being a street officer, the cases were infinitely more challenging and the work varied. I woke up every day to something new. Being the only female, I couldn’t do undercover work in my jurisdiction, though. After making the first few busts, I was known all over the bad guy community and recognizable to many. Therefore, I was loaned out to other states for this type of work and for joint initiatives with other federal agencies—when I wasn’t working on my own investigations in Alabama.
The guys did not except me in the beginning. It took very little time for officers in my former PD to trust working with me, to trust that I had their backs, as they had mine. In my new ATF post of duty, my fellow agents and I weren’t on the streets together every day, so it took longer, and several raids, for them to realize that I could do the job. A few were dinosaurs—ready to retire and set in their ways. I don’t believe they every really accepted me as a special agent, although they warmed up to me over time. One of these dinosaurs told me that, even though I was capable of doing the job, I shouldn’t. He believed this is man’s work, the presence of women reducing the value and quality of work performed by men. Other agents became good friends and colleagues—only after they set a few traps designed to trip me up and showcase any inadequacies necessary for the job that I might have been concealing. One such test was staged at an Outlaw motorcycle gang raid. But, that’s another story.
Bottom line is that being an agent, or any kind of law enforcement officer, is usually accompanied by a feeling that you are that role. No one does police work—they are police, 24/7. Same with special agents, at least the ones I’ve known. This is especially the case if the state confers police powers on all law enforcement officers—meaning that If you are confronted with a crime in progress, you have the power and authority to respond. In fact, there is a mandate to respond. Not so in every state, but officers are expected to perform their duties in any situation where they are needed, and intervention is required if witnessing a felony. So, I carried weapons even when off duty. I was always on, so to speak. My position became my identity, a second skin which I found difficult to shed after my injury.
PC: You’re a criminal justice professor, a private investigator, consultant and author. But which of these do you feel most embodies who Sheila is?
SS: Hmmm. I guess I still think of myself as a special agent, retired, but still a special agent. As I said before, I’m someone with too many interests to get around to in one lifetime. But, I enjoy all the hats I wear, and am trying to get to all my interests in this lifetime.
I particularly find teaching and writing rewarding. Seeing students improve over the course of a term is a rush, especially when they start out with deficits and an attitude. Often, my most resistant students end up being my biggest cheerleaders. I hear from them long after they have left my classes.
PI work is also interesting and challenging. I specialize in hidden camera technology and use cameras in my work quite a bit. When a camera documents a man beating his wife, someone abusing a child or neglecting a nursing home patient, there is no need to even go into court—as a rule. Most offenders take one look and know they are had. The evidence usually negates the he-said, she-said problem and ensures that justice is done.
PC: What do you see as the influences on your writing?
SS: My influences have been many and varied. I read most all genres and enjoy a wide range of authors. No matter what kind of day I’ve had, I go to bed with a book. I read classics, sci-fi and fantasy, urban fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, horror, non-fiction, educational and psychological, spiritual and more. I love poetry, reading and writing it. I guess books I read as a child have influenced me as much as anything—too many to list.
PC: How did you research for your book: Everything Book of Private Investigation? Was it mostly from knowledge you’d already learned in the field?
SS: Would that this were true! There is so much information in this book! I had to do extensive research in order to be sure I got it right. Of course, I interjected my own experiences into the mix, as well as that of others.
There is the added benefit of having had lifelong “researchitis”–studying law enforcement issues and law all my life—and, as a criminal justice professor, staying abreast of the latest information. Another piece that I believe helped me write this book is the fact that I’ve been local as well as federal law enforcement, and as such, have been exposed to a broad spectrum of information, training, etc. With ATF, I was fortunate to work with officers all over the nation and to have access to the finest training available.
My book includes many resources and links to sites that provide even more information than is available within its pages. In this way, it functions as a desk reference, not only for private investigation but as an overview of law enforcement issues, children’s security, and many other subjects. A friend of mine, a judge in North Carolina, keeps it on his desk for quick reference. It’s an overview, but has pockets of in-depth information on many subjects of interest to the writer as well, helping to get facts right.
Well, I just wrote a commercial, which wasn’t your question, was it?
PC: What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
SS: I have always dreamed of publishing a book. Although I believed it would be fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed putting my Everything Private Investigation Book together. I still get a secret thrill when I see a new review! I’m still a novice, but work to improve my skills.
PC: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
SS: I’m working on a fiction series. I’d love to be able to write for a living. Wouldn’t we all? That is my goal, however. I am also working on a series for children’s safety which also involves videos. This is my passion. Knowing what I do about pedophiles, I feel compelled to find means of protecting children from them and helping parents to do so.
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
SS: Many good books, writing teachers and opportunities are available. I’m learning the tools and honing my skills, but I know that studying the craft must be balanced with exercising the craft. One thing I know to be absolutely true is that writers write. They write when they don’t want to. They write whether or not they like what they’re writing and whether or not anyone is buying. It’s like any other art which involves skill—it must be exercised to remain at its best.
Most importantly, in my mind, is the fact that successful writers do not give up. So, I say, write until you get it right. Then, search for an agent and publisher who enjoys what you write and believes in you. Many authors have shared with me the long road to publication. It is not for the fainthearted, but rewards the faithful.
PC: You’re attending Killer Nashville this year, what sets it apart from other conferences?
SS: The developers and staff are remarkable. Clay and Beth are the best with which to work. Also, this is an inventive conference with multiple tracks, allowing for enormous amounts of information to be soaked up by attendees. Each year something new is added and much is improved. I’ve spoken at many conferences, and Killer Nashville is one of my absolute favorites. It attracts high caliber attendees and excellent authors, editors, publishers and agents.
PC: What is your favorite aspect of attending?
SS: While the speakers and panels are not to be missed, I enjoy mingling with other speakers, writers and guests whenever possible. The opportunity for networking is amazing, and is the best aspect as far as I’m concerned. This is worth the low cost of attendance all by itself!
Visit Sheila Stephens at: http://sheilalstephens.com/index.shtml