The family of a man who drowned in a local lake after begging police for help will file a lawsuit against an Arizona city.
Sean Bickings jumped into the Tempe Town Lake, near an arts center, which he used as a dwelling place in May, while officers interrogated him about a domestic violence report.
A Downtown Tempe Authority ambassador had called the police after Bickings and his partner, who were both unhoused, had a dispute. They both denied having an altercation.
Body-worn camera footage of the interaction shows the man slowly climbing into the lake amid a conversation with officers.
City officials said Bickings swam 30 to 40 yards before showing signs of distress. The incident sparked criticism of the police department.
The notice claim alleges, “Tempe police officers stood and watched as Mr. Bickings drowned in Tempe Town Lake, despite the significant danger Mr. Bickings was in and his desperate pleas for help.”
Transcripts released with the video show Bickings told officers he was drowning three times and pleaded for help two times. His mother, Turee Toro, is now seeking $3 million in damages.
“OK. I’m not jumping in after you,” one of the officers said as Bickings jumped into the water.
“Please help me,” Bickings replied. “Please, please, please.”
City officials said they would not comment on the legal proceeding.
“It is the City of Tempe’s practice not to discuss possible or ongoing litigation,” officials said in a statement. “The city will not be able to discuss or provide interviews regarding the incident or Notice of Claim at this time.”
Bickings’ partner also begged officers several times to rescue the man, but none of them jumped in the water. They instead threatened to detain the woman, who reportedly suffered from mental health issues, if she didn’t calm down.
“I’m just distraught because he’s drowning right in front of you, and you won’t help,” the woman said.
The officers eventually called for a boat to retrieve Bickings’ body from the water.
The Tempe Officers Association later said the officers were not trained nor had equipment for water rescues. The three officers involved were initially placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave but are now back on the job.
“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 union said in a statement in June.
Medical examiners ruled Bickings’ death an accidental drowning, contributed to by “methamphetamine intoxication” after a toxicology test detected methamphetamine in his system.
Police officials later said the officers told Bickings and his partner that they would run their names to check for warrants, but neither of them was being detained. Reports show police discovered Bickings had three outstanding warrants after his death.