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Arizona man who begged officers for help before drowning told ‘I’m not jumping in’

Sean Bickings, 34, who was homeless, drowned in Tempe Town Lake on May 28, city officials said.
/ Source: NBC News

Just before his death, a homeless man in Arizona pleaded for help, repeating, “I’m going to drown” to nearby officers, including one who said he would not jump in the lake to attempt to a rescue, officials said.

Sean Bickings’ death last month was a “tragedy,” Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching and Tempe Police Chief Jeff Glover said in a city-issued statement released on Friday.The 34-year-old drowned May 28 in Tempe Town Lake.

34-year-old Sean Bickings.
34-year-old Sean Bickings.City of Tempe

On Monday, the city released about 12 minutes of edited body camera footage that preceded Bickings’ death near the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge. It also made public a transcript of what they say Bickings said while struggling in the lake along with comments by officers who were close by.

In one portion of the transcript, which was released by the city to supplement the video of Bickings’ drowning, an officer, who was not identified, tells Bickings, “Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” after Bickings had said several times that he was drowning.

Three responding officers, who have not been identified, have been placed on routine administrative paid leave, according to city officials. The Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Scottsdale Police Department will “examine the Tempe Police response to the drowning,” the city said.

The City of Tempe released body cam footage Friday of the events leading up to a homeless man drowning in Tempe Town Lake after trying to avoid police.
The City of Tempe released body cam footage Friday of the events leading up to a homeless man drowning in Tempe Town Lake after trying to avoid police.City of Tempe

Representatives with the Tempe Officers Association, the city’s police union, said Monday that its “grief mirrors our community’s grief. No one wanted this incident to end as it did.”

The union’s statement added that city police officers don’t receive training on water rescues and don’t have equipment to help people 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,” the group said. “Officers are trained to call the Fire Department ... or get the Tempe Police boat. That is what officers did here.”

Police responded about 5 a.m. to the city’s center for arts after a reported disturbance between Bickings and a female companion, according to the city’s account.

The pair was cooperative and denied that there had been any physical altercation, the Tempe statement said. Officers informed them they were running their names through a database for outstanding arrest warrants, which is customary, when Bickings climbed a four-foot metal fence and entered the water and began swimming, according the Tempe statement and body-cam video.

“Officers informed him swimming is not allowed in the lake. He swam about 30 to 40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress. He soon went under and did not resurface,” the city said.

NBC News does not know what preceded the body camera video.

Before Bickings’ drowning, an officer is heard asking him, “What are you doing, my friend?”

In the transcript of the incident after Bickings enters the water, an officer asks him, “So what’s your plan right now?”

Bickings responds, “I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown.”

The same officer then says, “No, you’re not.”

According to the transcript, another officer tells Bickings, “Go to the pylon and hold on” before telling Bickings he’s not jumping in after him.

Bickings then says, “Please help me. Please, please, please.” He also says, “I can’t touch. Oh, God. Please help me. Help me.”

Bickings’ female companion is quoted in the transcript telling officers Bickings is drowning. She also says, “He’s everything I got. I can’t lose him. He’s going to die.”

An officer then says “The other officer is going to get the boat,” according to the transcript.

Officials with the city and police department on Monday declined to answer questions pertaining to Bickings’ drowning or the officers who were placed on leave.

NBC affiliate KPNX of Phoenix reported that about six hours passed before Bickings’ body was pulled from the lake. The news outlet also reported it was unclear how much time elapsed during the remarks by officers that were provided in the transcript.

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