Three Arizona Officers on Leave After Watching Drowning Man Beg For Help
"Okay, I'm not jumping in after you."
Three Arizona police officers have been placed on administrative leave after watching a man drown.
Disturbing body cam footage shows 34-year-old Sean Bickings take his last breaths in a Tempe City reservoir.
The incident occurred at the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge on the early hours of May 28, when officers responded to an “alleged fight” between Bickings and a woman claiming to be his wife, Susan.
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The footage shows the three officers approach the woman, who is clearly upset, as she explains she is having some “conversating issues” with her husband, but insists he has not been violent.
The officers then approach Bickings, sat a distance away, who also appears somewhat distressed. As the officers attempt to soothe him, he suddenly climbs over the four foot railings, telling them he is going for a swim.
“I’m free to go, right?” Bickings calls back.
“You can’t swim in the lake, man,” they tell him, leaning on the railings. “You’re not allowed to swim in the lake.”
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Nevertheless, Bickings swims about 100 feet out into the water as the officers watch.
“How far do you think he’s gonna be able to swim?” one muses to another. One of the officers advises keeping an eye on him in case he gets out, while he goes to summon a boat.
As the officer filming slowly makes his way along the bridge, a bike-mounted officer remarks “I’m pretty sure there’s turbines at the base of the dam that could suck him under the water.”
This is where the footage cuts off “due to the sensitive nature of the remaining portion of the recording”; Bickings would drown minutes later.
Instead, Tempe Police Department provided a transcript of what transpired afterward.
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“So what’s you plan right now?” the officer on the bridge asks Bickings in the water.
“I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown,” he replies.
“No you’re not,” one officer tells him.
“Go at least go to the pylon and hold on,” the second officer calls down.
“Come back over to the pylon.”
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” the officer tells him.
“Please help me. Please, please please,” the victim begs. “I can’t touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me.”
Bickings’ last words are “Can you hear me?” — before he slips beneath the surface and never comes back up.
The transcript shows the officers then turn their attention to Bickings’ frantic wife, who is telling them how much she loves him and cannot afford to lose him; the officers repeatedly tell her to calm down, and even threaten to put her in the patrol car if she doesn’t.
In a statement, Tempe Police Department confirmed Bickings drowned after “voluntarily entering the water and soon becoming unable to continue swimming.”
“Before entering the lake, he had been conversing, unhandcuffed, with the officers, who had responded to a call about an alleged fight between Bickings and his companion.”
“Neither were being detained for any offense. When officers arrived, they spoke to Bickings and his companion, who cooperated fully and denied that any physical argument had taken place.”
The said officers told the couple they were running their names through a database used to check whether people have outstanding arrest warrants, which is a standard procedure.
“That check had not yet been completed when Bickings decided to slowly climb over a 4-foot metal fence and enter the water. Officers informed him swimming is not allowed in the lake,” the statement said. “He swam about 30-40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress. He soon went under and did not resurface.”
Police later confirmed that Bickings, whom they described as “an unsheltered Tempe community member”, had three outstanding warrants.
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The incident is now under investigation at a state and local level.
All three responding officers who responded to the call and witnessed the drowning — who have not been identified — have been placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave pending the investigations, as is standard procedure.
In a statement to CNN, The Tempe Officers Association police union said officers do not receive training in water rescues, and do not have the equipment to help people at risk of drowning.
“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,” it said. “Officers are trained to call the Fire Department and or get the Tempe Police boat. That is what officers did here.”
They said the interaction had been “largely cordial prior to Mr. Bickings entering the lake.”
“He was free to go at any time,” the union statement said. “To watch the 11-minute video leading up to Mr. Bickings’ entering Tempe Town Lake and to understand how this 911 call ended is to see an awful loss of life. Our grief mirrors our community’s grief. No one wanted this incident to end as it did.”
Jamaar Williams, a Phoenix Black Lives Matter activist, told USA Today “there is no question” the incident involved police violence from the Tempe officers, who were “indifferent” as they watched Bickings drown.
“The whole reason Madrocks (Bickings’ nickname) was scared is because of the threat, it was police violence,” Williams said. “Police don’t actually have to be exercising that violence to cause that reaction which is fear, panic, and self-survival.”
“That’s absolutely state violence and police violence.”
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