Several angry demonstrators gathered outside Tempe City Hall during the Council’s June 9 meeting, pleading for resources to be transferred from the Police Department to other human-service agencies and no more officers be hired in the wake of a late-May drowning of a homeless man in Tempe Town Lake while three Tempe officers stood and watched.
The officers, who have not been publicly identified, are on nondisciplinary paid administrative leave during an investigation into the May 28 drowning of Sean Bickings, 34, with whom Mayor Corey Woods had a conversation only two days prior about resources available to those who are homeless, the mayor told reporters after the meeting.
Woods added that he had viewed body-camera video of the incident from one of the officers.
“I don’t think you can watch something like that without feeling very, very uncomfortable about what transpired,” Woods said. “I personally saw the video myself and went to my office and cried.
“I’ve never cried in my office in 10 years being here as a member of the City Council. That was how much that actually moved me.”
The City Council, however, approved the full proposed 2022-23 budget for the Police Department that includes 19 new positions, nine of them sworn officers and the remainder dispatchers and neighborhood ambassadors who can be called to incidents that do not require a sworn officer’s presence.
Results of the Police Department investigation into Bickings’ drowning will take several weeks, it says, while awaiting medical examiner and toxicology. The Arizona Department of Public Safety will then review Tempe’s findings.
Separately, the Scottsdale Police Department is reviewing the incident response at the request of TPD to ensure public trust and transparency. That investigation also is expected to take weeks.
Bickings is heard on the video pleading for help, saying, “I’m drowning, I’m drowning.”
One of the officers is heard responding, “OK, I’m not jumping in after you,” but then attempting to direct the man to a nearby pylon that he could grab onto.
The Tempe Officers Association, the officers’ union, said that officers have no training in water rescues nor have equipment to perform them. The officers could have been at risk of drowning, themselves, if they tried to save Bickings, according to a statement from the union.
Instead, the officers called for a police boat, which the union says was the correct protocol.
Friends of Bickings surmise that he ran from officers because he could have had warrants out for his arrest. Bickings climbed a 4-foot fence. Officers told him that swimming is not allowed in the lake. Still, he jumped into the lake near the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge and Tempe Center for the Arts and swam about 35 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress. He soon went under and did not resurface.
Officers were responding to a call of an argument between Bickings and his wife outside of TCA shortly after 5 a.m. on May 28.
Woods said that the city will be looking into providing more resources around Town Lake, such as flotation devices that can be thrown to someone struggling in the water.