Drowning at Tempe Town Lake pushes police to create new water rescue protocol

Months after a homeless man drowned in Tempe Town Lake, the police department is implementing new water rescue policies to avoid another tragedy.
Published: Aug. 22, 2022 at 7:28 PM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Sean Bickings drowned in Tempe Town Lake in May after his friends say he tried to get away from officers. The body camera video from police the morning of May 28 sparked criticism towards the responding officers.

The video shows 34-year-old Bickings climbing over a 4-foot (1.2-meter) fence along the lake and swimming. The transcript shows two officers repeatedly told Bickings to swim to a pylon and “hold on.” Bickings continuously pleaded for help, but an officer said he would not go into the water. At the time, police said the officers followed protocol by staying on land and calling for a rescue boat. However, the boat arrived after Bickings had already drowned.

There was a contentious Tempe City Council Meeting in early June. Friends of Bickings called out Tempe police for not doing more to help Bickings while he was in the water. That night, Mayor Corey Woods said the city and police department would work on ways to prevent something like this from happening again.

City officials announced last Friday that all Tempe police officers will now carry water rescue throw bags. They have already received training on how to use them. Also, water rescue rings attached to 100-foot (30-meter) ropes will be installed this fall around Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Lake.

For the first time since the drowning, Reporter Michael Raimondi spoke with Tempe Police Chief Jeff Glover on Monday. The chief said all officers are being trained on the NRS throwbacks they will carry. “It’s meant to be able to give the officers a resource to save a life if needed. The police department is making the changes to evolve and deal with circumstances we are presented,” said Glover.

Tempe police are creating a new water rescue policy moving forward. They hadn’t had one before the drowning since officers weren’t trained in water rescues. Chief Glover says the new flotation devices are on a rope and will keep officers safe as they help someone in the water.

The city said they’re making these changes to honor Bickings. City Manager Andrew Ching says they wanted to learn and improve moving forward. “Although he lost his life that day, we have learned lessons from it better as a city, as a police department, and hopefully as a community,” he said.

The local officers’ union said officers are not trained to do water rescues. However, an investigation led by the Scottsdale Police Department determined the three officers present acted properly. They have since returned to duty after being on paid administrative leave.