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Street Survival: How to enjoy your life while avoiding death by a thousand cuts

Insights from a police suicide survivor may help officers endure the inevitable “thousand cuts” experienced during a lifelong career in law enforcement

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Don’t let the best days of your life pass you by without knowing how truly good they are. I didn’t.

Photo/Dan Marcou

This article is part of a series by Lt. Dan Marcou. Click here to access all of Dan’s street survival lessons.

In recognition of the release of “Street Survival II: Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” I am writing a series of articles on street survival designed to turn the tables on the current generation of cop-killing criminals. In this series I will share the tactics I acquired during a career dedicated not only to ensuring my own personal survival but assisting other officers in their quest to survive as well.

“Death by a thousand cuts” was how a fellow officer and friend of mine described the emotional injuries that led to his decision to put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. After suffering significant injuries, he remarkably survived and strengthened himself emotionally to eventually return to his beat and enjoy his life after his devastating suicide attempt.

I would like to share some of the insights I learned from this suicide survivor and others to help you all endure the inevitable “thousand cuts” you will experience during a lifelong career in law enforcement.

Here are 14 behaviors to consider that may help you not just emotionally survive, but thrive.

1. Recognize that police stress is not “normal stress” and must be managed

Years ago, I received perspective on police stress while winding down from a particularly difficult shift in the weight room at the local YMCA. I noticed a thinly muscled man benching with great effort an Olympic Bar bearing 75 pounds. On the opposite side of the room a large competitive lifter named Bubba was bench pressing 400 pounds with less effort.

It struck me that the stress a good citizen experiences is a bit like the weight on the thin man’s bar. Law enforcement stress on the other hand is like the weight on Bubba’s bar. No matter which level of stress a person is given, when properly managed it can make you stronger. However, like the weights on the bar, poorly managed stress can crush you.

I realized cops must develop stress management skills to become powerlifters of stress.

2. Practice the discipline of staying positive

We have all known officers who are so negative they manage to make a pleasant experience unpleasant. For example, I once observed a young officer receive his first departmental citation for capturing burglars as a result of a Terry stop. Instead of congratulating the young officer, a negative officer offered this take on the citation, “They’re not much good for anything. I tried using one once when we ran out of TP and it was so coarse it left a rash.”

To become this negative is not inevitable, but a lifestyle choice.

There is another choice you can make that will leave you happier and more satisfied. Choose to practice the discipline of staying positive. Develop the ability to deliberately find the positive spin on every experience of your life. (This is not always possible, however.)

3. Accept positive criticism

Some officers never learn to accept positive critique. Instead they become defensive and internalize anger toward anyone who has the nerve to try to make them better cops.

If you can learn to appreciate constructive criticism from FTOs, assistant district attorneys and supervisors instead of letting it anger you, it will eliminate a major irritant in your life. It may also make you a better cop.

4. Understand that drugs and alcohol are not healing medications

Excessive alcohol consumption and use of illegal drugs have the power to make a good life terrible and a bad life even worse. Enough said.

5. Identify your circle of influence and your circle of concern

Outside of answering calls, don’t waste efforts fretting about things you have no ability to change or influence. It behooves you to concentrate your efforts only on those things you have power to improve, change and/or influence. In doing so you will become more effective and thereby expand your circle of influence.

6. Don’t become ensnared by someone else’s bad ethical decisions

Don’t ever put your career in jeopardy for someone who has knowingly put their own career in jeopardy by committing an unethical or illegal act. You can sell your honor for a penny, but once sold you can’t buy it back for a million bucks.

7. Realize how green your own grass is

There is a strong tendency in humans to be dissatisfied with their lot in life. Instead remind yourself how much you love your family, friends and your career. Many who have chosen to pursue something else that looked better have lost what they had, and long grieved that loss.

8. Know when

The realist in me knows that not everything we choose to do in life is good and right for our long-term well-being. Therefore, one needs to have the wisdom to recognize when a career, a relationship, or an addiction is causing irredeemable harm and conjure the wherewithal to move on.

9. Strive for excellence but…

Always striving for excellence in your performance will enhance your career satisfaction, but do not expect perfection. Excellence is good, but perfect is impossible.

10. When you need emotional help

When you need emotional help, seek it, and when others need help, offer it. Even Bubba would ask for a lift-off and spot occasionally in the weight room.

11. Fitness

Speaking of weight rooms, a regular physical fitness regimen pays physical and emotional dividends throughout your life.

12. Prayer

I found that when things settled down at any death scene, a silent, undetectable prayer for the soul of the departed put to rest the horrific images I had witnessed.

Also, a daily simple prayer of thanks facilitates an appreciation and recognition for all you have to be thankful for.

13. Stop often and smell the roses

In quiet moments don’t fail to notice the child’s lemonade stand on your beat, the beautiful sunset, the Northern Lights, a wildflower pushing through the crack in a sidewalk, or the satisfaction of a job well done.

I am proud to say that I do not believe anyone who has climbed to the top of Everest to take in the view could have received more pleasure than I did when at the end of a tough shift my wife and I slipped quietly into our children’s bedrooms just to watch them sleep.

14. Realize you make a difference

Recognize as often as possible those calls – both big and small – where you made a difference. Save some clippings and put them in an album for the day you need to remind yourself you have made a difference.


Sometimes a wonderful life is right in front of us if we are just disciplined enough to choose to see it.

Note: This philosophical approach can’t cure clinical depression, which requires professional assistance. For first responder suicide prevention and mental health wellness resources, click here.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter.

Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. He is the co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters.” His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and “Destiny of Heroes,” as well as two non-fiction books, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History” and “If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street.” All of Lt. Marcou’s books are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.