Tempe Town Lake drowning: Officers back on duty, new water rescue measures enacted

The city of Tempe has released new findings from an investigation over a man who drowned during an incident at Tempe Town Lake in May while police watched.

The incident began as a reported domestic violence situation at Tempe Beach Park between the man, identified as 34-year-old 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.

In June, Tempe Police released a transcript of conversations involving officers who responded to the incident.

 "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 an officer who was noted as ‘Officer 1’ in the transcript.

The three officers who responded to the call and witnessed Bickings' drowning were placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave.

Investigation results

The police department fell under criticism after some argued that the officers should have gone into the water and reacted more quickly to save Bickings. Meanwhile, others said that they should not have done so because it would have put even more lives in danger.

An investigation by the Scottsdale Police Department sided with the latter.

"Scottsdale concluded, after speaking to local law enforcement experts in water-related job assignments, that the Tempe officers should not have attempted a rescue by jumping into the water," city officials said. "Several reasons were cited, including the reality that drowning victims can physically overwhelm their rescuers." 

Tempe city officials said as a result of Scottsdale Police's findings, the three police officers who were placed on paid administrative leave are now back on duty.

The city of Tempe is still conducting their own death investigation, which is expected to be finished by late summer.

"When completed, Tempe has requested that the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) review the investigation," a portion of the statement read.

Medical examiner's report released

Sean Bickings

Sean Bickings

According to the Medical Examiner report, which was signed off in late July, Bickings' death was ruled an accidental drowning. 

The ME also listed "methamphetamine intoxication" as a contributory cause of death in the report. A toxicology test on Bickings detected methamphetamine in his system.

New water rescue measures

In the same statement, Tempe city officials say they are implementing new measures in the aftermath of the incident.

"Tragic events can prompt genuine reflection," said City Manager Andrew Ching, in the statement. "Tempe is a caring, compassionate community, and we take seriously the responsibility to examine our approaches and transform after devastating events."

Changes detailed by city officials include:

  • Installing water rescue rings connected to 100-foot ropes around Tempe Town Lake, as well as Kiwanis Lake
  • Issuing water rescue "throw bag" for every Tempe Police officers
  • Additional training for Tempe Police officer in what officials describe as the "Transformational Policing Model," which works to "educate and bring local police and community members of color together to address historic challenges and successfully partner for the future."
  • A Warrant Resolution Program to help unsheltered people address outstanding court matters, such as misdemeanor arrest warrants, outstanding fines and fees, and suspended driver’s licenses
  • Automatic co-response by Tempe Police and the city's crisis response team, CARE 7, to calls involving homeless, homicide, domestic violence, and sexual abuse.

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