Despite getting up and putting on his uniform and badge every day for eight years, Mark Laureano has never been to work.
His uncle told him a long time ago: “It’s not work if you love what you do.”
“Sometimes it’s work,” says Laureano, 43, a corporal with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. “But for the most part I haven’t been to work yet.”
Laureano’s journey from his hometown of Chicago to Columbia was years in the making, taking him through some two-dozen countries with the U.S. Marine Corps and then the Army. And it continues to take unpredictable turns, he said, most recently his joining the A&E documentary series “Live PD.”
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said of the success of the show, which is in its third season and continues to be a ratings monster. “I’m in somebody’s living room, and I never thought in my lifetime that would be a reality.”
‘Crashed and burned’
As a boy and a fan of the movie “Top Gun,” Laureano knew he wanted to be a military pilot. But the requirement for perfect vision stymied that dream.
“Even before that dream started to flutter, it was shot down,” he said. “It crashed and burned.”
So, he joined the Marine Corps and put in 4.5 years as an infantryman, during which he met his wife of 20 years. But the grueling travel schedule – two weeks of training every month and up to six months of the year traveling – started to take its toll as their family grew.
“Things take funny turns, I guess,” Laureano said. “Nothing bad. They just take funny turns, and I got out of the Marine Corps.”
But, he missed it. And six months later, after being told by the Marines that he would have to go through basic training again to get back in, Laureano instead went across the hall to the Army recruiting office.
His wife had five words: “I go where you go.” And she went with him, including from Germany to Columbia’s Fort Jackson after his second combat tour in 2009.
Discovering a new dream
When Laureano and his wife arrived in Columbia in 2009, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking a toll on soldiers in the Army, which was looking to downsize at the time, he said.
It was also around that time that he learned the Richland County Sheriff’s Department has a reserve officer program.
“I took it as an opportunity,” he said. “I always wanted to be a cop. I’m not getting any younger. I’m beat up but I can still function.”
The reserve program consists of unpaid volunteers, which Laureano said was the chance to see if being a cop was a dream or a nightmare.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “My dream times 10.”
After a few months as a reserve officer, he became a full-time deputy, putting in three years in Region 2 and then three years on the Community Action Team.
Laureano found areas of law enforcement that overlapped with his military service, including reading people and observing and interpreting their mannerisms. He also found a more ominous area of overlap that he calls “the unknown.”
“You accept death,” he said. “And I know that sounds pretty bad, but in the military — especially the time that I served where I went to war — I couldn’t (wonder) ‘Is today the day I get shot by a sniper?’ Is today the day I get blown up by a car bomb? Is today the day we hit an improvised explosive device and blow up on the side of the road? Is a suicide bomber gonna kill me today?”
Working in law enforcement is shrouded by the same unknowns.
“I can accept the fact that I was leaving next week for six months, because you prepare your mind for that,” he said. “My wife, my kids, we can prepare for that. But me not coming home, or they get that phone call — to me that’s the hardest thing out of any of that.”
His excitement for doing the job and his desire to be an example for his daughters help overcome the unknown.
“I want my girls to see that no matter how tough life gets and how hard things can become and no matter how afraid you get, being a true person — a true hero — is facing those and not running away,” he said.
‘Something we see all the time’
Cases or incidents involving children are some of the most difficult to work, said Laureano, a father of three.
He recalled a crash he worked as a rookie officer on Interstate 20 near Two Notch Road. An SUV had flipped, and a distraught woman who had been in the car told first responders she couldn’t find her 2-year-old son.
“He was being fussy, so they had him out of the car seat” before the car crashed, Laureano said. “They were playing with him.”
First responders searched for the child around the crash scene but found nothing, and deputies started to wonder if she was mistaken. Then, while looking around the passenger side of the SUV, Laureano found a tiny shoe.
“I opened the door and kind of pushed the door open, and then I saw the leg attached to the shoe,” he said. “And then I saw the baby.”
The baby was dead. Making it even worse, Laureano started his shift the next day with another crash involving another baby that died.
“And I was holding that baby,” he said. “I could feel the soft spots in the baby’s head. It stuck with me because that’s something we see all the time.”
Another call that left an impact on Laureano — and had a happier ending — was a search in sub-freezing temperatures for a man with a brain injury who wandered away from his home in the Gaston area. The man, who was worried deputies were going to take him to jail when they found him, had walked off from his home because he was upset at his roommates for not taking the trash out.
“But to him, that’s significant,” Laureano said. “That’s what I try to stress to younger deputies that I come across: Make what somebody’s telling you important, because it’s important to them.”
The job is not all doom and gloom, though. Laureano, who said he enjoys singing — especially salsa — was caught on camera busting a move at Columbia’s Latin Festival. That spectrum of emotion is why “Live PD” fans love Laureano, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
“You can see that he can have a good time, he can joke and make light of certain situations, and then when it needs to be serious and he needs to dominate the situation, he can do that too,” Lott said. “Sometimes you don’t think cops are like that, you think they’re robots. He kind of dispels that notion.”
Dan Cesareo, president of Big Fish Entertainment and executive producer/creator of Live PD, said Laureano “has continued to earn the praise and recognition of viewers – and us – for his ability to treat everyone he encounters with both respect and a level of calm that can defuse even the most challenging situations.”
Entertainment for some, real life for others
Having appeared on the long-running police show “COPS,” Laureano wasn’t fazed when asked in 2016 about cameras following him on shift for part of a new show called “Live PD.”
At first he appeared in prerecorded segments of the show, which was still in its infancy. Then, they asked him to go live.
“No pressure, right? My mistakes compounded by 1 million,” he said.
Almost three years later, he’s become a favorite of the show’s fans around the world, but says he still gets jitters before going on camera.
“There’s still no ‘Been there, done that,’” he said. “I have the jitters and I welcome the jitters, because the jitters keep me walking down the straight line. I’m not an actor by no means, and the way I police on the show is how I police.”
One of Laureano’s favorite — and to him one of the scariest — moments on the show was a tense 2017 pursuit and crash after which the driver crawled out of the car and slung his toddler daughter around while fighting with then-Senior Deputy Chris Mastrianni.
“That incident was my worst fear,” said Laureano, who was working that night and listened to the incident unfold over the radio. “And the worst fear was what nobody really talks about: (Mastrianni) on the radio saying he’s fighting, and then you don’t hear anything. So I don’t know if he’s getting shot, I don’t know if he’s getting stabbed.”
It underscores a point that often gets overlooked by fans of the show, Laureano said.
“It’s entertainment for you; it’s real life for us,” he said. “The people we deal with, the outcomes — those are real. People actually do go to jail, people actually do lose their freedom for years and months. Enjoy it while you can, but don’t forget that’s a reality, that we’re dealing with real-life stuff and we’re affecting those outcomes.”