Sean Bickings pleaded for help as he struggled to stay afloat in a reservoir in Tempe, Ariz., late last month. But Tempe police officers watched without intervening as Bickings went underwater and did not come back up, according to city officials and a transcript of body-camera footage.
“Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” an officer, identified as Officer 1 in the transcript, said moments later, after directing Bickings to grab onto a bridge.
“Please help me,” Bickings said. “Please, please, please.”
Soon after, Bickings drowned, according to a Friday news release by city officials.
Now, three Tempe police officers have been put on “non-disciplinary paid administrative leave” as the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Scottsdale Police Department investigate the officers’ response at the city of Tempe’s request, city officials said. The city has not released the names of the officers.
In a statement, Police Chief Jeff Glover and City Manager Andrew Ching called Bickings’s death a “tragedy.” Glover met with Bickings’s mother last week, according to officials.
The Tempe Officers Association, the city’s police union, said in a statement Monday that Bickings’s drowning was “an awful loss of life.” The union argued, however, that the officers were not trained or equipped for a water rescue and said that an attempt to rescue Bickings from the reservoir would have been dangerous.
“Moving forward, we will work for a change in how the City and [Tempe Police Department] approach potential water incidents in Tempe Town Lake, including instituting training and equipment changes,” the union said.
Just after 5 a.m. on May 28, Tempe police officers responded to an apparent disturbance between Bickings and a woman at the Tempe Center for the Arts, which sits on a promenade along the Tempe Town Lake, a reservoir in the city. In its statement, the city referred to Bickings as “unsheltered.”
Body-camera footage released by the city shows officers approach and speak to a woman who identified herself as Bickings’s wife. As she picked up her belongings off the ground, she explained that she and Bickings sometimes have disagreements but said that he did not physically harm her.
Two of the officers then walked over to Bickings, who was seated on a bench facing the water, according to the body-camera footage. By this point, the officers were running the couple’s names for outstanding warrants, a standard procedure, according to the city. The police later said Bickings had three outstanding warrants, the Arizona Republic reported.
But those did not come up during Bickings’s encounter with police, according to the body-camera footage, which shows the officers trying to make small talk with Bickings while running the check.
That’s when Bickings slowly climbed over a short fence dividing the boardwalk and the water. When one of the officers asked what Bickings was doing, Bickings replied that he was going “for a swim.”
“I’m free to go, right?” Bickings asked.
The officers said he was not allowed to swim in the lake, but Bickings waded in and started swimming a freestyle stroke toward a bridge, according to the body-camera footage.
“How far do you think he’s going to be able to swim?” one of the officers asked, according to the footage.
Two of the officers then walked onto the bridge Bickings had swum under and watched him, according to the body-camera footage, which at that point ends “due to the sensitive nature of the remaining portion of the recording,” officials wrote at the end of the video.
Instead, the city provided a transcript of the remaining portion, which indicates that Bickings became increasingly distressed as he remained in the water. Bickings told the officers he was going to “drown,” according to the transcript.
“No, you’re not,” an officer, identified as Officer 2, replied.
Officer 1 then directed Bickings to “go to the pylon and hold on.”
“I’m drowning,” Bickings said.
“Come back over to the pylon,” Officer 2 said.
“I can’t,” Bickings said. “I can’t.”
“Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” Officer 1 said.
Bickings then begged for help and said moments later, “I can’t touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me.”
Bickings’s partner then joined the officers and begged them to help Bickings, according to the transcript. The officers told her to persuade Bickings to swim toward the bridge pylon. She tried and became increasingly upset. At one point, according to the transcript, Bickings’s partner tried to jump over the railing to help Bickings but did not end up doing so.
“I’m just distraught because he’s drowning right in front of you and you won’t help,” Bickings’s partner said.
The officers continued to tell her to calm down, saying a third officer was getting a boat.
“No, no, no. Swim,” the woman replied, using an expletive.
“You’re not helping,” Officer 2 said.
Moments later, Officer 1 said that Bickings “went underneath and hasn’t come up since about 30 seconds ago.”
For the remainder of the transcript, the officers did not address Bickings. Bickings’s partner continued to tell the officers that she loved Bickings.
“He’s everything I got,” she said. “I can’t lose him, he’s going to die.”
Officials said Bickings swam no more than 40 yards before he became distressed and “soon went under and did not resurface.”
The Arizona Republic reported that a team with Tempe Fire Medical Rescue pulled Bickings’s body out of the water just before 11:30 a.m.