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Three Arizona police officers are placed on leave after looking on as a man drowned

Sean Bickings, 34, drowned on May 28 in Tempe Town Lake in Arizona.
City of Tempe
Sean Bickings, 34, drowned on May 28 in Tempe Town Lake in Arizona.

Three Tempe police officers who looked on as a man drowned in an Arizona lake late last month have been placed on "non-disciplinary paid administrative leave" as several law enforcement agencies investigate what happened.

According to city officials, officers responded to a call about a disturbance just after 5 a.m. outside the Tempe Center for the Arts, where they found Sean Bickings, 34, and his companion.

Officers were talking to an uncuffed Bickings — who officials described as an "unsheltered Tempe community member" — while they ran his and his companion's name through a database to check for outstanding warrants, authorities said.

It was then that Bickings climbed a metal fence, descended an embankment and began to swim in Tempe Town Lake, police body camera footage from one of the officers shows.

The footage cuts out before Bickings begins to struggle in the water, but the city provided a transcript of the video from there.

"I'm drowning," Bickings says.

An officer tells him to swim to a pylon, but Bickings says he can't.

"Okay, I'm not jumping in after you," the officer responds.

"I can't touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me," Bickings says moments later.

The Tempe Police Department is investigating Bickings' death, an inquiry that will also be reviewed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The Scottsdale Police Department is conducting a separate administrative review of how the police responded.

City Manager Andrew Ching and Police Chief Jeff Glover called the drowning a "tragedy." Police said Glover met with Bickings' mother on Wednesday.

Authorities say they plan to release additional portions of the body camera video this week from all three responding police officers. That footage will also be edited "due to its graphic, sensitive nature," they said.

Tempe Police and city officials say they are also reassessing their water response protocols, what equipment officers might need and the placement of rescue equipment at bodies of water.

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Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]