Man Who Drowned in Front of Police Was 'Pillar of Homeless Community'

A man who drowned in Arizona's Tempe Town Lake last month as police officers stood by and watched was well known for helping individuals in the local homeless community, according to his friends.

Sean Bickings, 34, was heard begging for help as he struggled to swim in the lake on May 28, according to an 11-minute edited body camera video obtained by CBS affiliate outlet AZ Family, and newly released police transcripts. Bickings jumped into the water following a confrontation with police and quickly asked for assistance, noting that he was unable to reach safety and was beginning to drown.

Police, however, responded to Bickings' distress by denying that he was drowning, while one officer noted: "I am not jumping in after you." Shortly after, Bickings did not resurface from the water, and a city fire department rescue team recovered his body and pronounced him dead.

Initial media reports said that Bickings was homeless at the time of his death and authorities described him as an "unsheltered" community member. However, his friends told local news outlets that Bickings was a pillar within the homeless community and that he had recently met with Tempe's mayor to discuss ways to help those in need.

Tempe Town Lake drowning
A man who drowned in front of police in Arizona's Tempe Town Lake was a pillar of the homeless community, according to his friends. Here, an aerial view of the lake is seen on November 21, 2021 in Tempe, Arizona. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"He was a thinker, always had something thought-provoking to say," Orionya Jensen, who knew Bickings for years and was once homeless, told AZ Family.

Now, Jensen and others said they're hoping to continue Bickings' legacy in helping the homeless, beginning with a call for new safety measures at the lake where he died.

"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," Jensen said, according to the news outlet.

Bickings' death has since sparked national scrutiny, and the three police officers involved have been placed on administrative leave, the city said in a statement on Friday. The officers originally confronted Bickings over reports of a non-violent verbal dispute between him and his wife. As they began checking the couple's names in a police database to find any outstanding arrest warrants, police said Bickings climbed over a fence and said he was going to jump in the lake.

In the video, the officers could be heard telling Bickings that he was not allowed to swim in the lake, while one questioned "How far do you think he's going to be able to swim?" Moments later, another officer can be heard asking Bickings: "So what's your plan right now?"

"I'm going to drown," Bickings began saying. "I'm going to drown." The 34-year-old then repeatedly began begging officers to "please help." One officer directed Bickings to move toward a pylon, but he was unable to reach it.

The Tempe Officers Association has defended the officers' actions by stating that city police are not trained for water rescues and could drown with the victim, according to Today. Officers are instead trained to call the Fire Department or get a police boat, which they did, the association said.

However, city officials have called Bickings' death a "tragedy," and have instructed the Department of Public Safety and Scottsdale police to examine the officer's response.