State Watch

3 officers on leave amid investigation into man’s drowning in Arizona

Temp Town Lake being refilled after a new dam was built to replace the previously damaged dam, Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Three Tempe, Ariz. police officers were placed on paid administrative leave after authorities said they did not intervene as a homeless man drowned in front of them late last month.

The officers had been speaking with Sean Bickings, 34, who was not being detained for any offense, when he voluntarily entered a lake and swam about 30 yards before telling officers he was in distress.

“I’m going to drown, I’m going to drown,” Bickings told the officers, according to a transcript of body cam footage released by police.

After one unnamed officer told Bickings he wasn’t drowning and encouraged him to grab onto a pylon attached to a nearby bridge, Bickings said he was unable to do so.

“Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” an unnamed officer responded.

Bickings soon went under and did not resurface, police said in a statement.

The Tempe Police Department said it is conducting a death investigation, which could take “many weeks” as the agency waits for medical examiner and toxicology results. The Arizona Department of Public Safety will subsequently review the local police agency’s investigation.

Meanwhile, Tempe police asked the Scottsdale Police Department to conduct an administrative review of the response, which it said is expected to take several weeks.

“Our Internal Affairs Unit will be conducting a review of the Tempe officers’ actions as it relates to Tempe PD policies and training in place at the time of the incident,” a Scottsdale police spokesperson said in an email to The Hill.

The Tempe Officers Association told The Hill in a statement that officers do not receive water rescue training or have equipment to help people at risk of drowning.

Attempting a rescue could “easily” result in the death of the person and the officer, and officers are trained to call the fire department or get a police boat, which officers did in this case, the group said.

“Moving forward, we will work for a change in how the city and [Tempe police] approach potential water incidents in Tempe Town Lake, including instituting training and equipment changes,” the group said.

Tempe police said officers had approached Bickings after receiving a call about an alleged fight between him and a companion, who identified herself as Bickings’s wife, according to the transcript. 

The agency said the duo had cooperated with the officers and denied that any physical argument had taken place, and that they were not being detained for any offense.

Bickings climbed a four-foot metal fence and entered the water after the officers told the couple they were running their names through an arrest warrant database, which police said is standard procedure. Police said they had found three outstanding arrest warrants, The Arizona Republic reported.

Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching and the city’s police chief, Jeff Glover, called Bickings’s death a “tragedy” in a statement.

The city government and police department are examining their water response protocols, the city said in a statement. The groups will also assess officers’ equipment needs and the placement of rescue equipment around bodies of water. 

The city added that it will release additional, edited body cam footage from all three of the main responding officers later this week. The city released a portion of one officer’s footage on Friday in accordance with Bickings’s mother’s stated wishes.

Updated: 12:50 p.m.

Tags Arizona drowning police investigation Sean Bickings Tempe

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