3 Arizona Officers Put On Leave After Allegedly Watching Man Drown As He Cried For Help

·5 min read
Sean Bickings, 34, drowned on May 28 in Arizona's Tempe Town Lake after he entered the water while being questioned by police, authorities said. (Photo: tempe.gov)
Sean Bickings, 34, drowned on May 28 in Arizona's Tempe Town Lake after he entered the water while being questioned by police, authorities said. (Photo: tempe.gov)

Sean Bickings, 34, drowned on May 28 in Arizona's Tempe Town Lake after he entered the water while being questioned by police, authorities said. (Photo: tempe.gov)

Three Arizona police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave amid an investigation into a recent incident where the officers allegedly stood by and watched a man drown.

Several Tempe officers were questioning Sean Bickings, 34, about an alleged fight between him and a woman near Tempe Town Lake on May 28. Authorities say that Bickings, who was homeless, entered the water as the three officers on the scene checked to see if he had any arrest warrants.

“I’m going to go for a swim. I’m free to go, right?” Bickings asked the officers after climbing a fence along the water’s edge, according to body camera footage released by the police department on Friday. The 12-minute video ends when Bickings, several yards from shore, starts crying out for help, according to a transcript of the incident released by the city.

The city said it edited the body camera footage, cutting it off before Bickings’ death, due to “the graphic nature of the incident” and out of respect for Bickings’ family.

According to what is seen in the video and the transcript, as Bickings entered the water, an officer told him he wasn’t allowed to swim in the lake. Bickings began to swim away from the officers on shore, one of whom asked another: “How far do you think he’s going to be able to swim?”

One of the officers told the other two to “keep an eye,” presumably on Bickings. The officer then appeared to leave the area, saying something about a boat.

About two minutes after entering the water, Bickings cried out for help and said he was drowning, according to the video. The two officers still at the scene told him to swim toward a nearby structure beneath a pedestrian bridge.

“I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown,” Bickings told them, according to the transcript, which documents their conversation after the video ends.

“No you’re not,” one of the officers replied, before again telling Bickings to swim to the structure.

“I’m not jumping in after you,” the second officer said.

Bickings climbed over a fence to enter the water, as seen here in an image from police body camera footage. He then swam several yards out from shore. (Photo: tempe.gov)
Bickings climbed over a fence to enter the water, as seen here in an image from police body camera footage. He then swam several yards out from shore. (Photo: tempe.gov)

Bickings climbed over a fence to enter the water, as seen here in an image from police body camera footage. He then swam several yards out from shore. (Photo: tempe.gov)

As Bickings cried out for help, the woman, who identified herself as Bickings’ wife, yelled out to him. One of the officers described her as trying to jump over the railing. He threatened to put the woman in a patrol car if she didn’t calm down.

“I’m just distraught because he’s drowning right in front of you and you won’t help him,” she told the officers. She went on to express frustration after repeatedly being told to stay calm.

“I’m so tired of not being heard all the time. This very upsetting. I can’t even finish a sentence,” she said, according to the transcript provided by the city. “He’s fucking a good man.”

At some point in the video, a fourth officer arrived at the scene on a bike.

Arizona’s Department of Public Safety and the Scottsdale Police Department have been asked to examine the Tempe Police response to the drowning, the city said. In the meantime, the three officers who were on the scene when Bickings drowned have been placed on a “non-disciplinary paid administrative leave,” the city said.

Tempe Police Chief Jeff Glover met with Bickings’ mother on Wednesday. In a statement, he called Bickings’ death a tragedy.

When Bickings began crying out for help, a woman who identified herself as Bickings' wife begged the officers to do something, according to a transcript released by the city. (Photo: Tempe.gov)
When Bickings began crying out for help, a woman who identified herself as Bickings' wife begged the officers to do something, according to a transcript released by the city. (Photo: Tempe.gov)

When Bickings began crying out for help, a woman who identified herself as Bickings' wife begged the officers to do something, according to a transcript released by the city. (Photo: Tempe.gov)

The Tempe Officers Association, the city’s police union, also expressed its condolences to Bickings’ family. In a statement to HuffPost on Monday, the union called Bickings’ death “tragic” and said that “no one wanted this incident to end as it did.”

The group further said that none of the department’s officers are trained in performing water rescues, and that the ones on the scene when Bickings drowned did not have the proper equipment to respond.

“Attempting such a high-risk rescue could easily result in the death of the person in the water and the officer, who could be pulled down by a struggling adult,” the union said. “Officers are trained to call the Fire Department and/or get the Tempe Police boat. That is what officers did here.”

The union noted that the officers did not have legal justification to detain Bickings, as he had been cooperative and “largely cordial” up until entering the water. The union said that swimming in the lake is a civil violation punishable by a ticket, not an arrest.

The union said it will work toward implementing changes within the city and the police force, such as additional training and equipment changes, to prevent such an incident from happening again.

A 2019 article on water safety tips and training for law enforcement by the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services ― which works to fund research, tools and training for police departments with the Justice Department ― says that officers face numerous risks when responding to a water rescue.

According to the article, officers risk being weighed down by their utility belts, vests and boots in the water. The article says it is also possible that the drowning person will panic and seize the responding officer in an attempt to stay afloat, or will turn hostile.

It’s “hard to know if the person is resisting arrest or drowning, even if he’s thrashing around,” Dave Young, a water survival training expert, is quoted as saying.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

Related...