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'Please help me': Police union cites lack of training in response to man drowning as officers watched

·5 min read
Tempe Police responded to a July 23, 2022 shooting in a parking lot.

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Tempe released edited body camera footage from officers that shows a man drowning in Tempe Town Lake as officers watched and did not step in to help.

The victim was identified as Sean Bickings, 34. According to a transcript of the footage provided by the city, Bickings told Tempe police he was drowning and begged officers for help as they stood by and told him they were not "jumping in after you." This portion of the footage was not included in the edited video released to The Arizona Republic.

Since release of the footage, the Tempe Officers Association, the police union for the department, described the drowning as a "human tragedy," but stated officers do not possess water-rescue training and lack equipment to perform water rescues without putting the officer at risk.

'Not jumping in after you': Tempe Town Lake drowning spurs protocol investigation

Bickings was an unsheltered member of the Tempe community, the city said in a statement released on Friday.

The three officers who responded to the incident are currently under non-disciplinary administrative paid leave.

Within the day of the drowning, police issued a statement saying a man ran and jumped over a fence and into Tempe Lake, just east of the pedestrian bridge. According to that release, officers maintained communication with the man and tried to get him to the bridge, but the man "was uncooperative" with rescue efforts.

Local activists rejected the story, saying officers stood by and watched Bickings drown. The footage was released Monday to The Republic.

Body camera footage shows officers responding to a report of a verbal domestic confrontation on May 28 around 5 a.m. at the Tempe Center for the Arts located at 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway.

The video shows officers speaking separately to Bickings and to a woman who identified herself as Bickings' wife.

The woman told officers she and Bickings had engaged in a discussion but that he had not been physically violent.

An original statement from the Tempe Police Department indicated Bickings had jumped into the lake in an attempt to evade police after officials did a background check and found three outstanding warrants.

Police had originally stated Bickings started running and jumped over a fence and into Tempe Town Lake, just east of the pedestrian bridge.

The body camera footage shows Bickings going over the fence and walking into the lake as he tells police, "I am going for a swim. I am free to go, right?"

Tempe did not release complete bodycam footage because of its "sensitive nature," the video states. The transcript of the remaining portion of the video indicates the video cuts off when Bickings starts telling police he is going to drown.

Bickings told police, "I'm going to drown. I'm going to drown." An officer responded, "No, you're not," according to the transcript.

Police told Bickings to swim to the pylon and hold on to it, to which Bickings answered that he could not do it.

"I am not jumping in after you," an officer said.

The original police statement said police "immediately" started rescue efforts as police got on a boat and called units with Tempe Fire Medical and Rescue.

The original statement from the Tempe Police Department said Bickings "was uncooperative" with rescue efforts.

The transcript says Bickings then started begging police for help.

"Please help me. Please, please, please," Bickings told police. "I can't touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me."

According to the transcript, a person identified in the document as a witness attempted to jump into the lake to help Bickings.

"Please stop being so aggressive," the witness said. "Oh my God, is he okay? Stop, why are you doing this?"

Bickings did not resurface. The Tempe Fire Rescue Team recovered his body and pronounced him dead just before 11:30 a.m., near the Tempe Center for the Arts.

Jamaar Williams, an activist with Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix, said "there is no question" the incident involved police violence from the Tempe officers.

According to Williams, Bickings was largely known as Madrocks among the Tempe community.

"The whole reason Madrocks was scared is because of the threat, it was police violence," Williams said. "Police don't actually have to be exercising that violence to cause that reaction which is fear, panic, and self-survival."

Williams said in the video and the transcript that police were "indifferent" toward Bickings' situation as he pleaded for help.

"That's absolutely state violence and police violence," Williams said.

In a city statement, City Manager Andrew Ching and Police Chief Jeff Glover called Bickings’ death a tragedy. Officials have asked the Department of Public Safety and Scottsdale police to examine the Tempe police response to the drowning.

The Tempe Officers Association stated that its members offered their condolences to Bickings' loved ones.

The union noted that Tempe officers lack the equipment to perform water rescues safely without risking an officer being pulled or pushed underwater. Instead, the protocol is to call the fire department or get a Tempe police boat on the scene, which the union claims the officers did.

The union also said that interactions between Bickings and the officers involved remained cordial and that he was free to leave at any time. The union also promised to work for new solutions in how officers act when facing water rescues.

"Moving forward, we will work for a change in how the City and TPD approach potential water incidents in Tempe Town Lake, including instituting training and equipment changes," the union said in a written statement. "We will work with the City and the community to ensure that such an incident never happens again."

Tempe City Council will hold a regular meeting on Thursday, June 9 at 6 p.m.

Reach breaking news reporter Laura Daniella Sepulveda at lsepulveda@lavozarizona.com or on Twitter @lauradNews.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Footage released of man who drowned in Tempe Lake as officers watched