Tempe, AZ – Three Tempe police officers have been placed on administrative leave after a suspect they were checking for warrants climbed over a metal fence, voluntarily swam out into Tempe Town Lake, and drowned.
The officers, who are not trained in water rescue and did not have the equipment needed to save the suspect without potentially being pulled underwater themselves, refused to go into the lake after the man, The Arizona Republic reported.
The incident began shortly after 5 a.m. on May 28, when a Downtown Tempe Authority ambassador called police to report a disturbance between a man and a woman on the north side of the Tempe Center for the Arts, the city said in a press release.
Officers responded to the scene and located 34-year-old Sean Bickings and a woman near the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge.
The woman identified herself as Bickings’ wife, bodycam footage showed.
“When officers arrived, they spoke to Bickings and his companion, who cooperated fully and denied that any physical argument had taken place,” according to the press release. “Neither were being detained for any offense.”
The officers told the couple they were running their names through a database to ensure neither of them had any outstanding warrants, which the city said “is a standard procedure.”
Although officers later discovered Bickings had three outstanding warrants for his arrest, the warrant check was not yet completed when Bickings suddenly made his way over to a four-foot metal fence, climbed over it, and told police he was going to go for a swim.
“What are you doing, my friend?” one officer asked him.
“I am going for a swim, right? I am free to go, right?” he responded.
Bodycam footage showed the officers telling Bickings he was not allowed to be in the lake, but he ignored them and voluntarily swam out approximately 30 or 40 yards, according to the city’s press release.
“How far do you think he’s gonna be able to swim?” one officer asked with concern in his voice.
The officer then radioed that the man had “jumped into the lake” and was “trying to swim away,” bodycam footage showed.
The city did not release the full bodycam video due to its “sensitive nature,” but did release transcripts detailing what transpired after Bickings began telling the officers he was “going to drown,” The Arizona Republic reported.
One of the officers told Bickings to swim back over to a nearby pylon, but Bickings said he couldn’t, according to the transcripts.
“Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” the officer warned.
“Please help me – please,” Bickings responded, according to The Arizona Republic. “I can’t touch. Oh, God. Please help me…”
A witness then attempted to jump into the water to try to help the drowning man, who police described as “uncooperative.”
“Please stop being so aggressive,” the witness told Bickings at one point, according to The Arizona Republic. “Oh my God, is he okay? Stop, why are you doing this?”
An officer told Bickings’ wife that another officer was in the process of “going to get the boat,” NBC News reported.
The Tempe Officers Association (TOA) said the officers were not equipped with the tools needed to rescue the drowning man and said they are also not trained in water rescues.
“Attempting such a high-risk rescue could easily result in the death of the person in the water and the officer, who could be pulled down by a struggling adult,” the TOA said in a statement to NBC News. “Officers are trained to call the Fire Department … or get the Tempe Police boat. That is what officers did here.”
Bickings ultimately went underwater and did not resurface, the city said in the press release.
His body was recovered by the Tempe Fire Rescue Team at approximately 11:30 a.m., The Arizona Republic reported.
Critics have blasted the officers for not doing more to save Bickings after he ignored their warnings and jumped into the lake of his own accord.
Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix member Jamaar Williams said “there is no question” that the incident was a case of police violence, according to The Arizona Republic.
Williams claimed that Bickings, a homeless man who was also known as Madrocks, jumped into the lake because he was scared of the officers.
“The whole reason Madrocks was scared is because of the threat, it was police violence,” Williams told The Arizona Republic. “Police don’t actually have to be exercising that violence to cause that reaction which is fear, panic, and self-survival.”
He said the officers displayed indifference during the incident.
“That’s absolutely state violence and police violence,” Williams declared.
Tempe Police Chief Jeff Glover and City Manager Andrew Ching released a statement calling Bickings’ death a tragedy.
Chief Glover also met with Bickings’ mother on Wednesday, the city said.
The Scottsdale Police Department and the Arizona Department of Public Safety have been asked to review the officers’ response to the incident.
The three officers who were present when Bickings drowned have been placed on “non-disciplinary paid administrative leave” pending the outcome of the investigation, as per protocol, the city noted.
The TOA said it plans to push for additional equipment and training for Tempe police officers to better prepare them to respond to water-rescue incidents, The Arizona Republic reported.
“We will work with the City and the community to ensure that such an incident never happens again,” the union said.