How the pressures of policing left Britain’s ‘Robocop’ broken

·7-min read
Alistair Livingstone, once Britain's most efficient policeman - Tony Buckingham /The Telegraph
Alistair Livingstone, once Britain's most efficient policeman - Tony Buckingham /The Telegraph

Wherever Alistair Livingstone goes in Ipswich, he encounters a memory. Down one street, a murder. Round the corner, a house fire. Up the road, a bank robbery. Over 18 years as a policeman in the Suffolk town, he saw just about everything. Now, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot unsee everything.

We meet in Ipswich’s leafier side, at a genteel sports club Livingstone has been a member of for most of his life. Surely, I say as we settle at a table outside, nothing around here haunts him? 

“The death of a baby,” he says, instantly, “at a house just a minute away. I cannot drive down that road without thinking about it. It doesn’t traumatise me, but it’s just a reminder.”

Livingtone, 38, is no longer a policeman. He works at a local secondary school – his old school, in fact – as a pastoral officer, guiding troubled students through the choppy waters of adolescence, with the ultimate aim of nudging them towards a life of success and fulfilment, rather than falling through the cracks. 

Quite a lot of them, he says, have Googled him. “They say, ‘Oh, sir, you were a policeman weren’t you!’” he says, with a smile. But search online for Livingstone and you quickly find he wasn’t just any old bobby, he was, variously, “The Supercop”, “Robocop”, and “Britain’s most efficient police officer.” 

Those monikers were born in the late 2000s, when Livingstone – then a 27-year-old response sergeant with Suffolk Police – made headlines for clocking up over 1000 arrests in 18 months. It equated to 1.4 per day. The yearly average for a police officer, those breathless press reports noted, was just nine.

Livingstone in his 'supercop' years - PA
Livingstone in his 'supercop' years - PA

“That was a classic case of statistics used to their fullest,” Livingstone says. Most officers, of course, are deskbound. “Your standard response officer would probably be doing anywhere between 30 and 50 a year.” He was still 10 times as effective as the best of his peers, then.

He isn’t quite sure what made him quite so prolific, but it sounds like a combination of refusing to sit around doing nothing in the downtime between call-outs, a desire to know his patch inside out, and a prodigious memory.

“I can definitely remember names and faces, once I’ve met people I can recall who they are. And I was driven. You’re your own boss, almost, in policing. You have the emergency response side of it, which you can’t dictate, but there’s an awful lot of time in between, and I’d always want to fill that downtime,” he says.

“There’s always people who are wanted, and that’s where it became a snowball effect. You arrest one person and meet others, and then your colleagues get to know that you know a lot of people, and ask you to keep a look out for someone.”

He made it his business to know every offender. If someone was brought into custody who Livingstone didn’t know, he’d take them their tea or breakfast and make a connection. “Some of that’s going out of policing now, whether it’s too much demand or not enough resources or whatever it might be, but that local knowledge of knowing your beat is crucial.”

Born and raised in Ipswich, as an 18-year-old Livingstone completed a grand total of three days at Loughborough University before deciding higher education wasn’t for him, and so enrolled in the police. 

He never looked back: the first of his many thousands of arrests was a drink driver (“really boring, but I learned that it’s always best to give a new officer an easy one”), but over 18 years he worked as a tactical advisor, search advisor, crisis negotiator and a response sergeant. 

In that time, he dealt with murders, tackled knife-wielding robbers, talked people down from ledges and was even on the case of “the Suffolk Strangler”, Steve Wright, who murdered five women who worked as prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006. 

Stories from those incidents are told in Livingstone’s new memoir, Broken Blue Line, but it’s not a straightforward hero’s tale. Instead, as the subtitle explains, it is about “How Life As Britain’s Supercop Broke Me”: how all those shouts, all those arrests, all those shifts – 28 night shifts in a row, at one point – slowly chipped away at his psyche.

“At the time,” he writes, “I was living in the moment, simply surviving from one hour to the next, one shift to the next, one month to the next.”

Alistair Livingstone, former supercop - Tony Buckingham /Telegraph
Alistair Livingstone, former supercop - Tony Buckingham /Telegraph

Things came to a head in 2018, when Livingstone suffered a serious mental breakdown. Despite not wishing either on himself, he would dream about taking his own life or being murdered on the job. Anxiety took over, and suddenly he felt overwhelmed by everything – not least the responsibilities of the job.

“I think in a way it was inevitable, the fact I’d gone all that time with no issues, and in good health, was never going to guarantee I’d go another 15 years with no mental ill health,” he says. He likens it to being hit by a bus, leaving him with “significant, life-threatening injuries” that still leave “residual niggles” even now he’s retired. At one time, he felt like “a complete failure” for not being able to get out of bed and go to work.

The dangers of frontline policing are well-known: only in the last few months Sgt Mat Ratana was shot and killed in a station in Croydon, South London; earlier in the summer, the killers of PC Andrew Harper, who was fatally injured in Berkshire last year, were jailed; and a fortnight ago Det Sgt Nick Bailey, who was poisoned in the Salisbury Novichok attack, announced he has quit policing after 18 years, because he “can no longer do the job.” 

What Livingstone’s story shows, however, is the daily toll policing can take on an officer’s health. “It’s that continual exposure to trauma and pressure, and how the public feel about the police always gets through to the frontline officers – it’s all pressure. Cops are making decisions every day on which someone’s life might hinge. People think that doesn’t happen often, but on the frontline it might happen three or four times.”

Livingstone appealed for help, and credits the police with how sympathetically they handled his illness. Eventually he resigned in July last year, aged 36, citing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. A brief return to the police this year, away from the frontline, caused a flare-up in his anxieties, so he’s now officially done. Instead, he’s helping a new generation. 

“There’s a great thing about working in a school: you see the other side of life, where lots of nice things happen. When you’re in the police, it can all seem negative,” he says. Today, he’s happy, healthy, and insists he wouldn’t change a thing from his past. Around Ipswich, he occasionally bumps into the petty criminals he used to nick on a daily basis, who greet him like an old colleague. 

And the memories – most of them dark ones – from 18 years in his dream job are still all around the town, even if they don’t bother him any more. Still, I wonder why he doesn’t just move away and start afresh. He smiles, leans back, and spreads his arms wide.

“Well, home’s home, isn’t it?”

Broken Blue Line: How Life As Britain’s Supercop Broke Me is out now in the Telegraph Bookshop

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