TEMPE, Ariz. — The City of Tempe released body cam footage Friday of the events leading up to a homeless man drowning in Tempe Town Lake after trying to avoid police.
On May 28, officers were called to the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge after a Downtown Tempe Authority ambassador reported a disturbance between 34-year-old Sean Bickings and his companion.
When officers arrived just after 5 a.m., officials said the officers spoke to Bickings and his companion, who cooperated fully and denied that any physical argument had taken place.
“At that point, the officers don’t really have a reason to be there,” Andy Anderson, a former assistant chief with Phoenix Police, said.
Anderson said ideally there would be someone with a mental health background to help officers once there was no threat.
Officers told the couple they were running their names through a database used to check whether people have outstanding arrest warrants. Officials said the check had not yet been completed when Bickings slowly climbed over a 4-foot metal fence and entered the water.
Bickings can be heard telling police he was “going for a swim.” Officers told him he was not allowed to but did not detain him.
“In reality, law enforcement did not have authority to detain him,” Anderson said.
City officials said he swam about 30-40 yards before indicating he was in distress.
According to a transcript released by Tempe Police, Bickings begged for help in the water.
The transcript reads in part:
Bickings: I’m drowning. (inaudible)
Officer 2: Come back over to the pylon
Bickings: I can’t. I can’t. (inaudible)
Officer 1: Okay, I’m not jumping in after you.
Victim: (inaudible) Please help me. Please, please, please.
“This is not a lake patrol team that has the equipment to do a water rescue, these are street cops,” Anderson said.
At least one officer did try to get a boat. It is unclear if a water rescue team was working that morning.
Bickings went under the water and did not resurface.
Tempe Police and Fire began to search for the man and officials said that at around 11:20 a.m. his body was pulled from the lake.
The three officers who responded to the call and witnessed the drowning have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation.
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