Tempe Police controversy: Protesters gather at City Hall as city council members discuss police budget

A protest happened on the night of June 9 at Tempe City Hall, as city leaders discuss the city's police department budget.

The protest came amid ongoing controversy over a drowning incident at Tempe Town Lake. The incident, which happened in late May, began as a reported domestic violence situation at Tempe Beach Park between the man, now identified as Sean Bickings, and his wife. Both denied that any fight had taken place.

When officers were called, Bickings reportedly tried to run away from them by fleeing into the lake. He was unable to get out of the water, and eventually drowned.

On June 3, Tempe Police  officials released new information on the incident. They say officers told the two that they were running their names through a database that is used to check whether people have outstanding arrest warrants, which is 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," read a portion of the statement. "He swam about 30-40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress. He soon went under and did not resurface."

In a transcript of conversations released by Tempe Police, an officer, only identified as ‘Officer 1,' was noted as telling Bickings to swim to a pylon.

"I'm drowning," Bickings, noted as ‘victim’ in the transcript, said.

"Come back over to the pylon," an officer, noted as ‘Officer 2' in the transcript, said.

"I can't. I can't (inaudible)," said Bickings.

"OK, I'm not jumping in after you," said Officer 1.

Bickings' wife was also begging police to help him, while they all watched from the shore. Fire rescue teams pulled his body from the water a few hours later.

The three police officers involved have reportedly been placed on administrative leave, while an investigation continues.

Group expresses outrage over Bickings' death

Many of the protesters were very outraged by Bickings death.

"He was a wonderful friend of mine, you know, and I love and miss him dearly," said Austin Davis, founder of AZ Hugs for the Houseless.

Some of the protesters ultimately want the city to divert funds from the police, and give them to other community projects.

"We are here to make noise. We are here to tell City Council to block the budget, do not pass this money, 2.5 million dollars for more cops. Fund the actual community resources, so that way, our communities can thrive," said Mimi Arrayya with a group called People’s Budget Tempe.

Inside the city council chamber, the meeting started off with a moment of silence for Bickings that was led by Mayor Corey Woods. The meeting was soon taken over by speaker after speaker demanding action and the resignation of the officers involved, while a crowd cheered on from outside.

"What we have witnessed at Tempe Town Lake was one of the most heartless displays of inhumanity I’ve seen from a police department since George Floyd," said one man at the meeting.

"In times of great loss like this, we need community now more than ever," said Davis.

Tempe Officers Association reacts to controversy

Officials with the Tempe Officers Association says officers are not trained for water rescues, and followed their training of going to get a boat. Meanwhile, city officials say they will reevaluate water rescues, and will look at adding life preservers around the lake.

Other Arizona Stories