The mother of Sean Bickings, a 34-year-old man who drowned in a popular lake in Tempe, Arizona, as police watched and stood by despite his pleas for help, is now taking legal action against the city.
In a Nov. 15 notice of claim, the legal precursor to a lawsuit, Bickings’s mother, Turee Toro, accused Tempe officials of negligence, saying that they had been aware of numerous drownings in Tempe Town Lake prior to her son’s May 28 death — yet failed to train officers to adequately respond to water emergencies and provide “any publicly accessible rescue devices.”
“Simply put, the City of Tempe was not prepared for this incident and failed to timely and properly respond … with the urgency with which the situation required,” her attorneys wrote in the notice.
In a statement Tuesday, the city acknowledged the claim but declined to comment on its details because of a policy not to discuss possible or ongoing litigation.
“The city will not be able to discuss or provide interviews regarding the incident or Notice of Claim at this time,” the statement said.
Bickings, an unsheltered Tempe resident, climbed over a metal fence near the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge and entered the water just after 5 a.m. while police officers were talking with him in response to a reported disturbance between him and his partner. According to the city, Bickings swam about 30 to 40 yards before indicating he was in distress. Shortly thereafter, he went under the water’s surface and did not reemerge.
Police body-worn camera footage shows officers watching Bickings as he went over the fence and into the water. An officer told him he was not allowed to swim in the lake, but they made no attempt to stop or go after him, according to the videos. Though the portions of the video showing Bickings drowning were redacted, transcripts released by the city reveal Bickings told the officers multiple times that he was “going to drown.”
“No you’re not,” one officer responded.
“I am,” Bickings responded.
Another officer instructed Bickings to swim over to a pylon, but he said that he couldn’t. “Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” the officer replied.
“Please help me,” Bickings said, according to the transcripts. “Please, please, please.”