Victim’s friends call for change after police watch drowning at Tempe Town Lake

A review is underway into the police's handling of a drowning at Tempe Town Lake as the victim's friend wants more safety measures in place.
Published: Jun. 6, 2022 at 4:18 PM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Friends of Sean “Madrocks” Bickings are calling for more safety measures at Tempe Town Lake after he jumped into the water, swam away from officers, and drowned late last month. They believed he jumped into the lake because he had warrants out for his arrest. Bickings was well known in the homeless community. Just two days before his death, Bickings met with the mayor in hopes of helping the homeless.

The incident on May 28 started when Tempe police officers responded to a call of an argument between Bickings and his wife, who lived outside Tempe Center For The Arts. While officers were talking to both of them, Bickings jumped into the water and swam away. It was the last time he was seen alive on the 11-minute edited body camera video. “That’s all I can describe it as; it was devastating,” said Orionya Jensen, who has known Bickings for years and was once homeless herself.

The Tempe Officers Association said they’re focused on new training and equipment in the wake of Bickings’ death.

“He was a thinker, always had something thought-provoking to say,” said Jensen. Now, she’s reliving the last morning of his life through the footage, but it’s what police didn’t release on video that’s raising eyebrows. A transcript with Bickings’ last words, “I’m drowning, I’m drowning.” After an officer guides him to a pylon, Bickings says he can’t make it, the officer replies, “Okay, I’m not jumping in after you.”

“To hear of someone standing there while his wife screams in the background to ‘save my husband, I don’t have anything without him,’ it’s despicable,” said Jensen.

The Tempe Officers Association, in a statement, said the officers have no training in water rescues or have any equipment to do so. Those officers, the association said, are at risk of drowning themselves if they tried to save Bickings. So instead, those officers called in a police boat which is the correct protocol. The association also said the officers could not detain Bickings since he and his wife denied a physical fight.

“Here is a failure to serve and protect,” said Valley attorney Benjamin Taylor, who is not affiliated with the case. He said the family has a strong case against the City of Tempe. “The fact that they failed to render aid as he was dying, he was pleading for help, that definitely makes Tempe liable for this man’s death,” said Taylor.

Now, Jensen and many others hope to continue Bickings’ legacy in helping the homeless, starting with change at his home, Tempe Town Lake. “There can be many things to be done, there looks like a great wall for some life preservers, maybe some buoys out there that could have been assisted,” said Jensen.

The city said Tempe police are conducting a death investigation but it’ll be weeks before it’s completed due to the medical examiner and toxicology results. The Scottsdale Police Department is doing an administrative review of the critical incident response. That’ll take several weeks as well. City officials also said they are working with police officers to examine the water response protocols and equipment needs for officers near waters. They will also look at possibly placing more rescue equipment around the lake.

Tempe says additional portions of video will be released from all three of the main responding officers. Released footage will be edited due to its graphic, sensitive nature, the city said. Arizona’s Family has requested the unedited body camera footage from the City of Tempe, and so far, it has not been released. The association said they’re focused on new training and equipment in the wake of Bickings’ death. The officers involved are on administrative leave during the investigation. Tempe officials have asked the Arizona Department of Public Safety to investigate the police response to the drowning.