The Will to Survive


Shots are fired! One offender is down, and three police officers are wounded. Another armed offender appears in the doorway, and two of the officers, stunned at the sight of their wounds, are unable to defend themselves. But, the third officer fights on, firing until the second subject is incapacitated.

This scenario could be an excerpt from a movie, but unfortunately, it is all too real. Each day, law enforcement officers across the Nation face life-and-death situations.

Can law enforcement officers encounter a life-threatening, violent confrontation and go home at the end of the day? Do they have the will to survive and fight on when faced with death? The answers to these questions go beyond combat tactics and accuracy with a weapon. One element is still missing: Survivability–the mental preparation and personal will to survive.

In 1991 the Operations Resource and Assessment Unit (ORAU) at the FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia, USA, conducted a pilot study and sought expert opinions in order to identify the human attributes associated with survivability. This article will discuss the available background research and will review the FBI’s findings.


In the media, astronauts and pilots have often been referred to as having “the right stuff”–personality characteristics that would aid their survival in critical situations. In fact, as part of their ongoing research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of Texas attempted to identify “right stuff” personality traits in pilot selection. As a result, the following two prominent personality orientations were linked with successful pilot behavior under dangerous flying conditions:

  • (1)�� Goal-oriented behavior, and (2) the capacity to empathize with others.

Combat psychiatry also offers insight into human performance under battle conditions. Research in this area has examined the causes and prevention of combat stress reaction (CSR) in relation to surviving life-threatening circumstances. CSR, sometimes referred to as “battle fatigue” prevents soldiers from fighting and may be theoretically viewed as behavior that opposes survival.

Further research identified leadership, devotion to duty, decisiveness, and perseverance under stress as significant attributes. And, in his studies into the area of survivability, S.E. Hobfol states, “…counting your losses when preserving resources is fatal….”. In essence, preoccupation with thoughts about loss may negatively affect one’s capacity to survive a possibly lethal confrontation. Thus, merely avoiding thoughts associated with loss may enhance survivability.

This concept of preserving resources can be exemplified best through the comments of Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired). Hathcock is credited with 93 confirmed kills as a sniper during two combat tours in South Vietnam.

A soft-spoken, unassuming man of honor, Hathcock compared his behavior just prior to and during an operation as isolating himself into an “invisible bubble”. This state of mind would “block thoughts of physiological needs, home, family, etc., except the target”. The amount of time in the “bubble,” lasting from a few hours to several consecutive days, depended not only on the circumstances surrounding his objective but also on adjusting to conditions where a trivial mistake could cost him his life. As he reflected on his distinguished military career, Hathcock also mentioned a number of other attributes he considered necessary for survival. Among these were patience, discipline, and the ability to concentrate completely on a specific task.


Cognitive/behavioral psychological theory offers insight into the benefits of mentally rehearsing possible reactions to life-threatening situations. According to one theory, developing a plan of action could enhance one’s perception of effectiveness, and therefore, affect an officer’s ability to survive. In fact, as A. Bandura states:

“People who believe they can exercise control over potential threats do not conjure up apprehensive cognitions and, therefore, are not perturbed by them….those who believe they cannot manage potential threats experience high levels of stress and anxiety arousal. They tend to dwell on their coping deficiencies and view many aspects of their environment as fraught with danger. Through some inefficacious thought they distress themselves and constrain and impair their level of functioning”.

C.R. Skillen provides a classic example of cognitive rehearsal in law enforcement. According to Skillen, successful patrol officers imagine the best approach to emergencies that could occur during a tour of duty. They then decide upon the best and fastest route from one location to another, should the need arise. These Officers also imagine “what if” situations and develop effective responses in case a similar confrontation occurs.

This type of cognitive rehearsal activity has proven to be effective in relieving fears and in enhancing performance in stressful encounters. However, mental preparation can work against officers who believe that if shot, they will certainly die. When reinforced by appropriate training and one’s value system, these attributes and behaviors may provide a law enforcement officer with the ability to survive a life-threatening situation.


Behavior identified in the background research and theoretically linked to survivability was later summarized to develop a pilot study questionnaire. The FBI then distributed this questionnaire in late 1989 and early 1990 to a broad group of Federal, State, and local law enforcement officers attending the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, USA. The questionnaire was also administered at work or training sites in Illinois and California. In all, a total of 207 questionnaires were administered and completed.


The questionnaire asked respondents to rank various behaviors and traits, developed from background research. Not all the behaviors and traits are associated with law enforcement, but everyone has been linked to survival. Ranking ranged from little or no importance to extremely important. Law enforcement officers rated each factor in terms of its overall importance for effective performance in a short-term, violent law enforcement confrontation. Effective performance was defined as a violent confrontation that requires a lawful, combative response where the officer continued to function even though the final outcome could be death for the officer or adversary.


Analyses of the pilot study data revealed the items listed below as those perceived to be most critical to officer survival. The items appear in order of importance, except for items (3) through (5), which are of equal value.

  • (1)�� Self-confidence in performance–The officer’s belief that a critical task can be performed effectively with a high probability of success.

  • (2)�� Training–The officer’s belief that prior training has been effective, and if applied, will increase the possibility of survival in deadly confrontations.

  • (3)�� Effectiveness in combat–The officer’s mental frame of reference in which the officer can visualize victory in a deadly confrontation.

  • (4)�� Decisiveness–The Officer’s ability to make rapid and accurate decisions when confronted with a critical situation.

  • (5)�� Perseverance under stress–The officer’s ability to continue to perform critical tasks mentally and physically when confronted with stressful situations.


There was a popular country song that talked about being a lover, not a fighter. And I think that’s true for most people, including Police Officers. No one wants to hurt anybody. Police become hardened to street values over time, but it’s not human nature.

Yet, the Police are told they have the authority and responsibility to do whatever is necessary to protect and to serve our citizenry.

During wartime, a soldier’s mind is conditioned to hate the enemy. He’s the one who gassed our men in the trenches, sank the hospital ships, torpedoed the ferry in Sydney harbor, blitzed Poland, bombed Pearl Harbor, crossed the 49th Parallel, and invaded those nice people in South Viet Nam.He set up concentration camps and death camps to slaughter the Jews, raped the women, killed the children, tortured prisoners, and committed all kinds of atrocities for which he deserves to DIE. But the soldier is either at home in a rear echelon or he’s in the battlefield. He can�t be in both at the same time. But for the policeman, the rear echelon is the battlefield.

You might pull over the little old lady who ran a red light and a few minutes later face a terrorist group robbing a bank with automatic weapons. The policeman is one minute a father figure and the next an “exterminator”. What does that do to a cop’s head? Andrew Casavant of the Midwest Tactical Training Institute in the USA has pondered this question, queried qualified psychiatrists and psychologists, let me share with you his consensus.

Mental perspectives are critical to your surviving any confrontation. And these mental attitudes must be habitual, instinctive. All the physical skills in the world will be fruitless if your head is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Physical skills alone do not insure success.

There are a host of elements that insure your success in a confrontation, beyond the simple attributes of ability, power, speed, strength, balance, and reaction time. These elements are to be found in your mind. Merely knowing remembering, or attempting defensive control techniques will neither defuse an assault nor guarantee your personal protection. Mental conditioning is as necessary as the physical involvement.

According to Casavant. Violent confrontations require the participants to be involved both physically and mentally. You must react with both mind and body if you are to be effective. Without the mental involvement, the physical technique is less effective, or totally useless. If you aren’t mentally prepared, you are as useless as the little old lady who knows nothing will ever happen to her.

Mental preparedness, mental conditioning, the mental trigger, it has been called many things. But what does it mean? The mentality that one needs to survive must begin at an early time and continue throughout training until the thoughts and subsequent actions become habitual even in combat.

How do you develop this mentality and maintain it? Of what importance is it in confrontational situation? Casavant’s theory is that before you can become physically skilful in defensive control techniques, there must be a transition from “what was” to “what is”.

“What was” is how one views his past experience and perspectives on use of force in dealing with physical assaults. Before you became a cop, your life experiences were hardly aggressive. Now, those experiences interfere with your new role as a law enforcer.

“What is” reflects the environment in which you now operate. The Marquis of Queensberry rules don’t matter any more. There’s no referee to count to ten. No umpire to confirm that was a strike. There isn’t even a union arbitrator to negotiate your grievances. Once you accept the fact that no one is there to call the shots, to help out, you are well on the way to understanding what mental awareness is, and how it can enhance your physical skills. Even if help is by your side, they likely won’t or can�t do what needs to be done. You’ve got to take care of Number One: yourself.

What mentality is needed to insure your survival? Casavant has organized these attitudes in terms of what you face on the street.


Alertness is the overriding theme. If you’re not ready when it’s time to act, your skills won’t help. Presume that you can and probably will be assaulted. You immediately assess the threat. That’s part of awareness, an awareness of where you are in relation to all things in your environment.

It’s a fact that most people are unaware of their surroundings. Why should you be any different? Yes, training and experience prepares you. That can give you an edge. But only if you recognize what you are up against. Jeff Cooper, a well-known combat shooting instructor in the United States came up with a color code scheme that police trainers have adopted with fervour.

Color Codes

  1. WHITE: When you are home watching television, sleepwalking, totally unaware of your surroundings. Unfortunately, this is where most of the population spends its time. This is having the “victim” mentality, Casavant says; the “I cant believe it’s happening to me” syndrome.

  1. YELLOW: Now you are aware of your surroundings. You are relaxed but alert. You anticipate, rather than expect, something to happen. You are simply prepared.

  1. ORANGE: Now you are aware of something specific in your surroundings that have caught your attention. Perhaps it will be a threat. You analyze the threat potential and potential risks to you and others.

  1. RED: You are ready to do what needs to be done. You may decide to move in or back off, depending on the circumstance. But do you have a plan? If you don’t, you’ll probably lose, unless Lady Luck is sitting in your corner. If you do, your reaction will be quick and sure.

  1. BLACK: You’ve got no choice. An assault is in progress. If you aren’t mentally prepared, you PANIC. You must go from White (totally unaware) to Black (he shoots) in a fraction of a second. If you haven’t followed the crucial self-training of always anticipating an attack, you add to the sad statistics. With anticipation comes preparedness. It is critical to your survival that your own attitude is to be prepared when your wildest anticipation comes true.


Once you commit to a reaction to a threat, be decisive about it, Casavant says. Hesitation, when the situation calls for action, can be fatal. A mind cluttered with liability issues, department policies, and other such diversions, will cause hesitation when you need to ACT. Make up your mind about those “what if” things beforehand, so that your decision is already made when the situation arises. When you are called upon to act, you can. When the compliant “yes” person turns into a “maybe”, then resists, he’s a “no” person. You have to do something. Whatever you decide to do, DO IT.


You’ve decided to do it. so do it like you mean it. Be aggressive. You decide on a course of action-to apply a pain compliance technique, to use enough force to make it work. If you draw your baton, USE IT, hard-and properly. Don’t pussyfoot around. End the confrontation with whatever force is necessary, as quickly as you can. This minimizes the risks to all involved. But “aggressiveness” must be taught. It’s not our human nature. And certainly not the nature of smaller statued male or petite female officers. You must learn to be assertive. That’s part of defensive tactics training.


To execute any defensive tactics technique, to gain the advantage of surprise, you must act quickly. Speed is essential. First, speed of thought. Don’t stop to ask yourself if he really meant to swing that lead pipe at you. Quick thinking is as important as quick hands or feet. Without speed of thought actions are simply movements with no direction.


Remaining cool and calm in any confrontation, both mentally and physically, is paramount to success. Through realistic training, you must learn to control your emotions through such sound physiological principles as adrenalin flow and respiration. When you are involved in defending yourself or others, the seriousness of the situation is under your control. If you can decide a confrontation quickly and without injury, you minimize the seriousness of the attack. Controlling yourself lets you control the situation before it gets out of hand or controls you.


While it seems harsh, ruthlessness has a place in describing the mentality of a conflict. Ruthless means that we will win, and we will do whatever it takes to win, and survive. We will continue to fight, even if hurt, and we will never give up. When the situation calls for it, we will get “junkyard dog mean”.

Ruthlessness is a state of mind that must be short lived. If you can�t let go after the need for force is past, you’re being brutal. Being ruthless. when you must be ruthless, gives you the spirit for combat.


If you strike when least expected take your assailant down without warning, you gain the element of surprise. And that makes your technique even more effective.


The psychology of personal protection is neither sensational nor lackadaisical. It is as intense and as serious as your motivation for professionalism. it does not lie in peer attitudes or department requirements (if any). The responsibility is yours. Only you will determine your ability to respond to a threat. If you achieve the tactical transition of mind and body, of skill and psyche, you will succeed. You will survive. Your desire to learn will determine your capacity for learning. If the class you attend is a “requirement”, you might not get much out of it. If you recognize that the class may help you get home to your wife after work, you will benefit. Do you want to win and survive? Training is a small price to pay to develop the skills and habits that enable you to win and survive. The old adage that you will do under stress what you’ve trained to do is really not quite correct. You will probably perform much worse in a serious confrontation than you ever did in training. So, to survive a street confrontation, you need to continually exercise the skills you learned in class. And you can do it in your head.


Suppose that little old lady were to swing her umbrella at your head. What would you do? Imagine yourself doing what you need to do to parry her blow. Suppose someone leaped out from the dark corner with a gun in his hand. What would you do? Draw and shoot? Or dive for cover? and where is the cover?

If you can actually see yourself going through the motions of your newly learned techniques, it will improve your ability to respond quickly. While there’s no substitute for good, hard, comprehensive physical practice, you still need the mental conditioning to enhance your response and keep you alert in more mundane circumstances.

Mental conditioning requires you to practice in as realistic a situation as possible. Draw on your own experience, or that of others, as scenarios for mental exercises.

The one emotion you can t conceive is the one that makes the greatest difference in a real threat FEAR. Unlike fights on television, real confrontations aren’t logical, patterned, give-and-take brawls. They are a flurry of hitting and screaming, kicking and shoving. You must mentally train for the attack that is certain to be sudden, vicious, and perhaps overwhelming.


Confrontational opponents can be categorized by their way of thinking. So can we. The bully is mechanical. He intimidates by brute strength. But the guy who thinks about what he’s doing is intellectual. He’s unpredictable. When someone grabs the gun on your right hip, handgun retention might teach you to secure the gun in the holster with your left hand, cock your right arm and CHOP to the rear as you turn to the right. That gets the offender’s hand off your gun fast.

However you could turn to the left instead, the grabber’s hand would have forced the trigger guard back under the shroud retaining the gun, as the Officer’s left forearm delivered a blow to the offender’s head. Now I’m not saying one procedure is better than the other. Both can be correct. The one that works is the right one. While you must repeat the mechanical routines time and again to make them habitual, you must never hesitate to change your strategy to accommodate the situation. Situations aren’t scripted, they develop minute to minute, in an infinite variety. If you practiced parrying the pipe swung by a right-hander, you’d better be flexible enough to switch if the offender is left handed.


When a situation first presents itself, your mental conditioning is anticipating the subject’s first move and planning a countermove by positioning, blocking, or attacking. Your mind runs like a machine gun, thinking of all the possible moves he might make and how you would respond. But what do you do next?

Focusing on the most probable attack he might make, you counter; and then you should be thinking two or three steps ahead so you have an alternative, should your first attempt fail.

The prevailing mentality today is much as it is portrayed in cowboy movies. The marshal waits for the bad guy to draw first. We wait to be attacked before we can defend. If this person is challenging us and threatens a grievous assault, why wait? Surprise him. Gain the initiative and prevent his assault. It might convince him his challenge was a bad idea. If it doesn’t, you’ve got him at a disadvantage. You’ve taken the initiative away from him. You’ve let him know that you have the advantage. Make him realize the risk to HIM of pursuing his aggressive behavior. Human behaviorists call it “risk aversion”. When someone recognizes the high risk of doing something, he avoids doing it.


The objective of all this is for you to realize that violent confrontations and personal defense can involve more than just the physical element. You need a mental awareness of every aspect. Training, applied successfully in real life, builds confidence and confidence enhances your ability to handle an adversary puts to you.


The concept of survivability represents a dynamic set of behaviors that should be considered in relation to certain law enforcement environments. Life-threatening events associated with uniformed patrol, undercover operations, SPG operations, hostage response and other specific hazardous law enforcement missions, require personnel who can survive the virulent stressors associated with these unique operations.

Self-confidence in performance, training, effectiveness in combat, decisiveness, and perseverance under stress were identified in this pilot study as tantamount to law enforcement officer survival. Officers should be offered the chance to undertake further training focusing on the five behaviors mentioned previously that are most often associated with survivability. It is hoped that law enforcement officers who have been exposed to such training opportunities will increase their potential for survival in life-or-death situations. Only through proper training in behaviors that ensure survival can law enforcement prepare to meet the anticipated occupational challenges of the future.

Part of the Departments responsibilities can also be addressed by ensuring all Officers have confidence in their equipment (firearms) and suitable training to go with along with it.

� Copyright Michael KAY 1997.