In the early morning hours of May 28, Tempe police officers found Sean Bickings, 34, and a woman in a tank near the city’s Elmore Pedestrian Bridge, according to a statement from the city of Tempe.
Officers were responding to a call about “an alleged fight” between Bickings, who the city described as “homeless”, and his companion. The statement said Bickings and his partner denied any physical abuse and neither was under arrest.
Officers were interviewing Bickings and running his name against a database to determine if he had any outstanding warrants, the city said in a statement.
“This verification was not yet complete when Bickings decided to slowly climb over a 4-foot metal fence and enter the water,” the statement said.
“He swam approximately 30 to 40 meters before repeatedly indicating distress. He quickly sank and did not resurface,” the statement continued.
The Tempe Officers Association, the union that represents Tempe Police Department officers, said in a statement emailed to CNN that officers do not receive water rescue training and lack the necessary equipment. to help people at risk of drowning.
“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. Officers are trained to call the fire department and/or get the boat out of the way. Tempe police. That’s what the officers did here,” the statement read.
The Tempe Police Department is investigating Bickings’ death, the city said, adding that it could take several weeks, in part because investigators await the results of a medical examiner’s report. Once that investigation is complete, the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) will review the findings, the city said.
When asked for comment, the DPS confirmed that it was willing to review the investigation but declined to comment further as the investigation is open and ongoing.
The three officers who initially responded to the call have been placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave pending investigation, according to the city.
Separately, the city said it has asked the nearby Scottsdale Police Department to conduct an administrative review of “critical incident response” in an effort to maintain “public trust and transparency.” This investigation should also last several weeks. Scottsdale Police said its Internal Affairs investigators will review the actions of responding officers with respect to Tempe police policies and training.
Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching and Police Chief Jeff Glover “believe Bickings’ death is a tragedy,” the city said, adding that Glover had met with Bickings’ mother.
CNN attempted to contact Bickings’ family for comment.
What police body camera footage shows
The city has released partial body camera footage of an officer’s incident, and what he says is a transcript of all conversations from the footage that has not been released. The remaining body camera footage of the three officers will be released later this week, the city said, adding that it “will be edited due to its graphic and sensitive nature.”
In the body camera footage, Bickings can be seen sitting on a bench and talking to police as they stand behind him. Bickings later climbs over the metal fence and enters the reservoir.
At this point, the police can be heard telling Bickings, “You’re not allowed to swim in the lake,” but Bickings continues to jump into the water.
The nearly 12-minute video, which also shows what happened between the couple and Tempe police, ends before he begins to call for help.
In the city’s remaining video transcript, Bickings says, “I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown.”
Officers repeatedly tell Bickings to swim to the pylon and one says, “Okay, I’m not jumping after you,” according to the transcript. Officers called for a water rescue team to be dispatched and requested firefighters’ assistance, according to the transcript.
In its statement, the police union said the exchange was “largely cordial before Mr Bickings entered the lake”.
“He was free to leave at any time,” the union statement read. “To watch the 11-minute video leading up to Mr. Bickings entering Tempe Town Lake and to understand how that 911 call ended is to see a terrible loss of life. Our grief reflects the grief of our community. No one wanted this incident to end the way it did.”
The city said it is reviewing water response protocols with Tempe police and assessing officers’ equipment needs and the need to place lifesaving gear around bodies of water.
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