Suffolk ‘Supercop’ Ali Livingstone pens new book on life in policing and his mental health breakdown
PUBLISHED: 07:30 24 September 2020 | UPDATED: 16:39 24 September 2020
As a successful Suffolk police officer, Ali Livingstone was once dubbed ‘supercop’ for his enviable arrest record before a debilitating mental breakdown saw him walk away from the job he loved. Now the former sergeant has penned an insightful new book which shines a light on the challenges of modern policing, the trauma he faced, and the journey to regain his mental health.
Ali Livingstone made national headlines in 2009 for making more than 1,000 arrests over 18 months. It was a statistic which saw him revealed as ‘Britain’s most prolific police officer - with more arrests per week than the average officer makes in a year’.
Speaking at the time, the officer put his unrivalled success down to old-fashioned policing methods of getting out on the beat and getting to know the community.
But less than ten years on, the daily strain of life on the beat and dealing with society’s most vulnerable took its toll and led to a battle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
Mr Livingstone, 38, who spent nearly 20 years with Suffolk police, said he believes the exposure to “life and death policing” later in his career was the tipping point.
“I think my career almost had two phases to it. I was identified as this officer who made loads of arrests and was well known by the criminal fraternity, and that was very much my role for a number of years,” he said.
“I think latterly, probably the last four or five years of my career, my focus and work changed quite a lot. All of a sudden I was becoming involved in specialist roles, things like hostage and crisis negotiation, I became a search advisor dealing with high-risk missing people and major crime scenes, murder scenes.
“I think those roles exposed me to life and death policing all day, every day.
“I remember once I was the on-call negotiator for the weekend and I sat in my house and thought, ‘if my phone rings at 3am this morning, it will probably be someone sat on a bridge thinking of taking their own life and I will be the only person who can potentially save their life’.
“It’s that pressure. Although I was being exposed to trauma and dealing with lots of trauma, it was almost a combination of that and all of a sudden this extra life and death pressure. It’s probably what tipped me over.”
Writing the book
The book, entitled Broken Blue Line, details some of those significant events during his career, including clinging onto a suicidal man hanging from the roof of a multi-storey car park and the fall-out of losing colleague PC Cheryl Lloyd, who was tragically killed in a car accident in West End Road, Ipswich, while responding to a 999 call, on June 18, 2005.
The former officer said those events were “surprisingly easy” to recall when he made the decision to write about his career during his recovery, with no intention to publish it.
“It was only when I was really poorly that I sat down and thought, ‘you know what I want to write about some of the stuff that I’ve done’ and it was very much a cathartic way of trying to document some of the good work that we do and some of the things I’d been involved in – and I found it surprisingly easy to go back and remember those events.
“I guess that’s because it’s not just the events, it took me back to who I was working with, the team that I was on, what was happening at the time. When we lost Cheryl in the accident when the police car crashed, those memories were really vivid when I allowed myself to think back to it.
“At the time of writing it, I never intended on publishing it. It was very much writing it for me to put everything down on paper, in a way almost to say, ‘I can put that all behind me now, I’ve written it all down and I can close the book on it and that will help my recovery’.
“But as I went through my period of illness, I think that once I was more open about what happened, and people realised it was actually Ali who had had this catastrophic breakdown, people were interested in it.
“They were interested in how it happened, how it affected me and I was very keen to share that. I’m never one of those people who’s going to say, ‘this is what happened to me and therefore you must do this, you should do that or shouldn’t do this’.
“But a lot of people when I told them my story about what had happened, I think it resonated with them and I all I could say is ‘this is what happened to me and this is what I found helped, and this is what I found didn’t help’.”
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The book also details his recollection of the “surreal” Ipswich serial killings in 2006, when the eyes of the world were focused on the Suffolk town.
“I remember I was working on a response team in Ipswich and it really felt personal. We’re not the biggest town in the country and we’re kind of tucked away in East Anglia, and all of sudden the world’s spotlight was upon us,” he remembers.
“It was a surreal time but really brought the town together I thought. The demand went through the floor. So many people who would have otherwise been calling the police about things, didn’t. It was almost as if they felt, ‘we just want them to get on and catch whoever’s doing this’.”
New role and mental health provision
Mr Livingstone, who now works at a Suffolk high school in a pastoral role supporting students, believes the police are “ahead of the curve” in terms of being aware of mental health needs for officers but stressed that he required specialist support following his breakdown.
“I spent nine or ten months working with a consultant and we made some progress but I was nowhere near recovered,” he said. “Then I was referred to mental health services through the NHS, a dedicated team to try and unpick what was going on.
“I would compare it, if I had a really significant physical injury or illness then I wouldn’t expect the police to fix that. I would have to go to a doctor or a hospital to be fixed. I suppose that’s the same with mental health.
“I think that the organisation are much better at identifying when officers are under pressure, much better at providing that low-level support when the person is still able to work and try to manage them through those difficulties.
“But I think to do mental health justice, when it’s really significant and really quite acute, no employer could deal with that. It really needs to be dealt with by the health service. I found that when I got my head around that, it makes perfect sense.
“I know the mental health trust have difficulties and challenges but when I was referred to them and worked with them, they were absolutely brilliant. I felt that was when my recovery really gained momentum.”
Mr Livingstone added that he was “blown away” by the support received from members of the public since opening up about his challenges, and offered two key messages to anyone struggling with their mental health.
“From the minute I talked to people about what happened to me, I haven’t heard a single negative, uncaring, unkind comment. I was blown away,” he said.
“When I opened up about it, the overwhelming message that came to me from friends and people who knew me was, ‘I wish I’d known because had I known, I would have been there for you’. They almost felt quite bad that they hadn’t been able to support me.
“I think some of that is almost self-imposed stigma. I know when I first went off, my team were told, ‘Ali’s off, not telling you why, you’re not to contact him and he’ll be in touch in due course’. That was some of my doing, I was happy with that and yet all it did was cut me off from all the people who would have been there for me at the drop of a hat.
“So I think for me the key message is, ‘just be reassured that people will be really supportive’.
“And the other key thing is just to try to spot those signs. It’s when people put those things to the back of their mind and think, ‘I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine’. I guess that’s what I did for all those years. I thought, ‘I’m a bit stressed but that’s life, just keep going’.
“I guess it’s a bit like when you’ve got a dodgy knee. If you keep ignoring it, eventually it will become a serious issue. But if you can manage it over time, the chances are, you’ll be fine.”
Broken Blue Line: How Life As Britain’s Supercop Broke Me is published by Little, Brown and is released today.
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