Arizona Police Conduct Being Investigated After Man Being Questioned Over Alleged Domestic Dispute Drowns

Sean Bickings drowned after scaling a fence around a reservoir in Tempe while being questioned by police. The three cops there when he drowned have been placed on paid non-disciplinary administrative leave pending an investigation.

Police in Arizona responding to reports of a man and woman arguing allegedly declined to physically intervene as the man began drowning after attempting to swim in a reservoir. 

State and local agencies on Monday announced they are investigating the death of Sean Bickings, 34, who police were questioning when he climbed a fence around a reservoir near the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge in Tempe last month. 

The officers were responding to a call about “an alleged fight” between Bickings and a woman, both of whom denied any physical violence had occurred, just after 5 a.m. on May 28, a statement from the city of Tempe said.  

As police questioned Bickings, who authorities described as “unsheltered,” they ran his name through a database to determine if he had any outstanding warrants. Before the check was completed, “Bickings decided to slowly climb over a 4-foot metal fence and enter the water," the statement said.  

Partial body camera footage of the incident from one officer, which was released by the city, showed police called to Bickings, who responded, “I’m going to go for a swim. I’m free to go, right?” 

Swimming is never permitted in the reservoir, which police said, but Bickings swam off.  After about a minute, an officer radioed that the man had swam away. "He swam about 30-40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress. He soon went under and did not resurface," the statement said. 

The body camera footage was not released in its entirety due to what police are calling the sensitive nature of the video, but authorities shared what they said was a transcript of all conversations that were not released in the footage.  

The transcript showed Bickings began asking for help and officers repeatedly told Bickings to swim to the pylon.  

"He swam about 30-40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress. He soon went under and did not resurface," the statement said. 

The transcript read in part: 

Bickings: I’m drowning. (inaudible) 

Officer 2: Come back over to the pylon 

Bickings: I can’t. I can’t. (inaudible) 

Officer 1: Okay, I’m not jumping in after you. 

Bickings: (inaudible) Please help me. Please, please, please. 

Bickings at one point said, “I can’t touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me… I can’t touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me.” 

The woman he was with told police, “I’m just distraught because he’s drowning right in front of you and you don’t want to help.” 

Eventually Bickings went under the water and did not resurface.  

“He’s all I got,” the woman said. “I can’t lose him; he’s going to die.” 

At least one office did try to get a boat, authorities said.  

Tempe Police and Fire searched for Bickings. His body was pulled from the water about 11:20 a.m.  

The three officers who responded to the call and were present when Bickings drowned have been placed on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave pending the investigation. 

"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. Officers are trained to call the Fire Department and or get the Tempe Police boat. That is what officers did here," the Tempe Officers Association, the union that represents the officers, said in a statement to CNN

Officers do not receive training in water rescues and are not equipped to help those at risk of drowning, the union’s statement to CNN said.  

The Tempe Police Department is investigating Bickings' death. The probe may take several weeks, in part because investigators are waiting for results of a medical examiner's report, CNN reported. The Arizona Department of Public Safety will review the police department’s findings, officials said. 

Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching and Police Chief Jeff Glover “believe Bickings’ death is a tragedy,” the city’s statement said. Glover has met with Bickings’ mother, officials said. 

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