Police officers looked on as 34-year-old Sean Bickings pleaded for help from the waters of Tempe Town Lake in Arizona, a lawsuit says.
One said, “I’m not jumping in after you,” according to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Bickings’ mother on May 26.
“Please, I can’t touch,” Bickings said, according to the lawsuit, which cites transcripts of police body camera footage from the May 28, 2022, incident. “Oh God. Please help me.”
Bickings disappeared under the surface around 5:16 a.m., about four minutes after he entered the water, the lawsuit says. His body was recovered about six hours later by fire rescue personnel, the lawsuit says.
“It’s been one year, and they’re still grieving,” Benjamin Taylor, a lawyer representing his family, said of Bickings’ loved ones. “They’re devastated, especially his mom. This is her baby.”
The lawsuit accuses the City of Tempe and the police officers on scene of negligence, saying they failed to uphold their duty to keep Bickings safe. The city also failed to protect members of the public from dangerous conditions and did not have proper safety measures in place around the lake, according to the lawsuit.
After Bickings went under the water, a police boat arrived but was not able to get past a buoy line at the lake’s shore because the padlock had been changed and police hadn’t been given a new key, the lawsuit says.
A police officer was also “callous” in his treatment of Bickings, who was begging for help as he tried to tread water, Taylor said. The officers also handcuffed Bickings’ partner who was on scene and pleading with officers to help Bickings, the lawsuit says.
Nikki Ripley, a spokeswoman for the City of Tempe, which is located just outside of Phoenix, said the city does not discuss active legislation but sent McClatchy News information on safety initiatives the city is pursuing.
Flotation rings will be installed around the lake at the beginning of June, according to the city. Tempe officials announced in August that police officers would receive water rescue throw bags and be trained in how to use them. The City Council is also scheduled to vote in June on a $1.8 million park ranger program that would place patrols in city parks and around Tempe Town Lake.
After Bickings’ death, the police officers who were on scene were placed on “non-disciplinary” paid administrative leave and were later reinstated, according to the city.
“Sean Bickings wouldn’t have had to die”
Despite a history of drownings at Tempe Town Lake, a 2-mile body of water that is the state’s second-most visited public attraction, the city did not have lifeguards on duty or any life preservers or flotation devices stationed around the water, Taylor said.
The lawsuit cites multiple drownings that have occurred at Tempe Town Lake since 2013. That year, Joseph O’Conner, a city employee, drowned in the lake after falling out of his kayak. More than a month later, Gerrick Begay, a 21-year-old former Arizona State University student, was found dead in the lake.
A city spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether the city kept data on the number of drownings that have occurred at the lake.
“Because of the City of Tempe and their negligence and they’re failure to act in prior drownings… Sean Bickings wouldn’t’ have had to die if they had installed life preservers,” Taylor said.
“One of the kindest souls you could ever meet”
Taylor said many of Bickings’ friends described him as a “big teddy bear.” He was also an advocate for people who were unhoused and was well-known around the Tempe community.
Taylor said people who attended a recent vigil for Bickings talked about how kind he was.
“One of his friends mentioned that Sean was one of the kindest souls you could ever meet,” he said. “He’d pretty much give you the shirt off his back.”
The lawsuit asks for damages of an unspecified amount for Bickings’ family’s pain, suffering and grief. It also asks for punitive damages.
But his loved ones also want to see the city’s safety protocols continue to improve, Taylor said.
“They want to see justice for Sean,” he said. “They want to see that his memory stays alive and that the City of Tempe makes change, that way, nobody else will have to drown in this lake.”