Three Arizona police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave as part of an investigation into a recent incident in which officers allegedly stood by and watched a man drown.
Several Tempe officers were questioning Sean Bickings, 34, about an alleged fight between him and a woman near Lake Tempe Town on May 28. Authorities say Bickings, who was homeless, went into the water as the three officers at the scene were checking to see if he had warrants for his arrest.
“I’m going to go swimming. I’m free to go, aren’t I? Bickings asked officers after climbing over a fence along the water’s edge, according to body camera footage released Friday by the police department. The 12-minute video ends with Bickings, several yards from shore, beginning to scream for help, according to a transcript of the incident released by the city.
The city said it edited the body camera footage, cutting it before Bickings died, due to “the graphic nature of the incident” and out of respect for Bickings’ family.
According to what is seen in the video and transcript, as Bickings entered the water, an officer told him he was not allowed to swim in the lake. Bickings started swimming away from the officers on shore, one of whom asked another, “How far do you think he can swim?”
One of the officers told the other two to “keep an eye out”, presumably on Bickings. The officer then appeared to leave the area, saying something about a boat.
About two minutes after entering the water, Bickings screamed for help and said he was drowning, video shows. The two officers still at the scene told him to swim to a nearby structure under a pedestrian bridge.
” I am going to drown. I’m going to drown,” Bickings told them, according to the transcript, which documents their conversation after the video ended.
“No you’re not,” one of the officers replied, before again telling Bickings to swim to the structure.
“I’m not rushing after you,” the second officer said.
As Bickings screamed for help, the woman, who identified herself as Bickings’ wife, shouted at him. One of the officers described her as trying to jump over the railing. He threatened to put the woman in a patrol car if she didn’t calm down.
“I’m just upset because he’s drowning right in front of you and you won’t help him,” she told officers. She then expressed her frustration after being repeatedly told to stay calm.
“I’m so sick of not being heard all the time. It’s very upsetting. I can’t even finish a sentence,” she said, according to the transcript provided by the city. “He fucks a good man.”
At one point in the video, a fourth officer arrived at the scene on a bicycle.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Scottsdale Police Department have been asked to review Tempe police’s response to the drowning, the city said. Meanwhile, the three officers who were at the scene when Bickings drowned have been placed on “non-disciplinary paid administrative leave,” the city said.
Tempe Police Chief Jeff Glover met with Bickings’ mother on Wednesday. In a statement, he called Bickings’ death a tragedy.
The Tempe Officers Association, the city’s police union, also expressed condolences to Bickings’ family. In a statement to HuffPost on Monday, the union called Bickings’ death “tragic” and said “no one wanted this incident to end the way it did.”
The group further said that none of the department’s officers were trained to perform water rescues, and those at the scene when Bickings drowned did not have the proper equipment to respond.
“Attempting such a risky rescue could easily result in the death of the person in the water and the officer, who could be shot by a struggling adult,” the union said. “Officers are trained to call the fire department and/or get the Tempe police boat. That’s what the officers did here.
The union noted that officers had no legal justification for detaining Bickings, as he had been cooperative and “largely cordial” until he entered the water. The union said swimming in the lake is a civil offense punishable by ticket, not arrest.
The union said it would work to implement changes within the city and police force, such as additional training and equipment changes, to prevent such an incident from happening again.
A 2019 article on water safety tips and law enforcement training by the Federal Bureau of Community-Oriented Policing―which funds research, tools, and police training with the Department of Justice―indicates that officers face many risks when responding to rescue.
According to the article, officers risk being weighed down by their utility belts, vests and boots in the water. The article says it’s also possible for the drowning person to panic and grab the responding officer in an attempt to stay afloat, or become hostile.
It’s “difficult to tell if the person is resisting arrest or drowning, even if they are struggling,” said Dave Young, an expert in water survival training.