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Family suing city after cops allegedly watched man drown in Tempe Town Lake

The wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Sean Bickings accuses Tempe of not properly training public safety employees to conduct rescues in Tempe Town Lake.

TEMPE, Ariz. — The family of Sean Bickings has filed a wrongful death lawsuit one year after the 34-year-old drowned in Tempe Town Lake. 

The circumstances surrounding Bickings' death sparked many questions and criticisms and now his family hopes litigation will force the city to make some changes to avoid another fatal incident.

"The City of Tempe and Tempe law enforcement promised new safety measurements following Sean’s tragic death and a year later we have yet to see these actions implemented," said Benjamin Taylor, the family's attorney. "We hope this lawsuit will encourage the City of Tempe to take the necessary steps to ensure no one else carelessly loses their life by drowning in Tempe Town Lake.”

Bickings jumped into the lake on May 28, 2022, during an encounter with local law enforcement. He could be heard pleading for help as he was drowning but the responding officers chose not to immediately assist the distressed citizen.

"I’m not jumping in after you," one of the Tempe officers told Bickings, according to a transcript of the body-worn camera footage.

When Bickings' partner attempted to help him, officers restrained and handcuffed her. 

It took about six hours for public safety officials to recover Bickings' body, according to the lawsuit.

Bickings' surviving family is accusing Tempe officials of negligently not training employees to better respond to water rescues at the lake.

In the lawsuit filed last week, the plaintiff highlights the many other drownings that have occurred at the lake over the last decade. 

Furthermore, the lawsuit underscores how Tempe police were capable of helping to rescue a dog out of the lake 11 days before Bickings' death.

"Those Officers were willing to confront that risk for a dog on May 17, 2022; but, on May 28, 2022, the involved Defendant Tempe Police Officers did not even walk to the bank of the Tempe Town Lake while a human being drowned to death in front of them," the lawsuit states.

After Bickings' death, the City of Tempe promised to make changes. Now, every Tempe officer is trained and outfitted with "throw bags" to help with water rescue. 

The city plans to install flotation rings at Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Park Lake in early June. The rings will be placed at access points of the two lakes. For example, at Tempe Town Lake, they will be located at the marina, docks, pedestrian bridge, etc.

Tempe does not comment on active litigation.

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