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'I’m Not Jumping In After You': Tempe Cops Stood By As Black Man Drowned, Bodycams Show

Police officers in Tempe, Arizona, threatened to detain the wife of Sean Bickings when she tried to save her husband from drowning to death, but refused to swim after him themselves. 

By Jax Miller
Bodycam footage of the incident involving Sean Bickings

Newly released bodycam footage indicates that police in Tempe, Arizona ignored the pleas of a Black homeless man who drowned to death in front of them.

Authorities with the city of Tempe, Arizona have released partial video footage and transcripts from officers’ body-worn camera to Oxygen.com which capture the drowning death of 34-year-old Sean Bickings. On May 28, Bickings allegedly entered the waters of Tempe Town Lake of his own accord after Tempe Police responded to an incident between Bickings and his partner near the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge.

According to a city news release, a Downtown Tempe Authority ambassador called for officers to respond to the Tempe Center for the Arts shortly after 5:00 a.m., citing a physical altercation.

Three officers arrived at the scene, as shown in the partial video.

Officers first spoke with a woman claiming to be Bickings’ wife at a building’s landing, where she denied any physical altercation between her and Bickings. Officers then went to Bickings, who sat on a bench near a banister at the end of the bridge. He, too, denied getting into a physical altercation with his partner.

“Neither were being detained for any offense,” according to the news release. “Officers told the couple they were running their names through a database used to check whether people have outstanding arrest warrants; this is a standard procedure.

“The check had not yet been completed when Bickings decided to slowly climb over a 4-foot metal fence and enter the water.”

Bickings can be heard saying, “I’m going go for a swim. I’m free to go, right?” just before he easily entered the lake.

It remains unclear whether authorities called for mental health services to assist with the call.

A police handout of Sean Bickings

Officers stayed put as Bickings began to paddle away from land. One officer asked another, “How far do you think he’s going to be able to swim?”

Bickings swam about 30-40 yards before signaling any sign of distress. The video ends with text stating that the rest of the footage was omitted because of its sensitive nature.

What happens next can be gleaned from Tempe police transcripts, as reviewed by Oxygen.com.

“So what’s your plan now?” one of the officers asked Bickings.

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

“No, you’re not."

“I’m drowning,” Bickings pleaded.

When instructed by officers to swim to the bridge’s pylon, Bickings said, “I can’t. I can’t.”

“OK, I’m not jumping in after you,” another office commented.

“Please help me,” Bickings continued. “Please, please, please.”

Bickings “soon went under and did not resurface,” according to the news release.

As Bickings remained submerged, his partner pleaded with officers to rescue him, stating that she loved him, according to the transcripts.

“I love him, I love him,” the woman told officers. “Please stop being so aggressive.”

At one point, one of the officers told the woman to “chill out” and threatened to put her in a patrol car.

The woman begged Bickings to swim back, saying she couldn’t live without him. She also told authorities that Bickings "gave me my little girl, for crying out loud."

Police reportedly stopped the woman from also entering the lake to save Bickings.

“I’m just distraught because he’s drowning right in front of you, and you won’t help,” she pleaded.

Bickings’ body was eventually pulled from the lake by Tempe Police and fire officials shortly before 11:30 a.m., according to NBC Phoenix affiliate KPNX.

Studies show that racial and ethnic disparities are correlated with drowning deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mortality data collected between 1999 and 2010 identified that Black people under the age of 29 were 1.4 times more likely than white people to die by drowning.

According to Tempe officials, how officials handled the situation will be subject to review.

“The three Tempe police officers who responded to the call and witnessed the drowning have been placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave pending the investigations, as is customary in critical incidents,” according to the city’s news release.

Calls to the Tempe Police Department were not returned to Oxygen.com.