Things That Matter

Opinion: Tempe Police Could Have Saved Sean Bickings, Instead They Let Him Drown

A man named Sean Bickings, 34, died on May 29 in Tempe Town Lake while pleading for his life to Arizona police. Bickings drowned in the lake while officers stood idly by and watched him submerge under water.

Newly released bodycam footage shows officers refusing to jump in the lake after Bickings fled from what the officers labeled as a routine response to a public disturbance.

“I am not jumping in after you,” an officer can be heard replying to Bickings’ pleas for help in an edited 11-minute body camera video.

According to police transcripts, Bickings told the officers, “Please help me. Please, please, please. I can’t… Oh God. Please help me. Help me.” Shortly after, the man did not resurface. His body was eventually fished out and pronounced dead by the city fire department rescue team.

Bickings’ death has been labeled as a “tragedy” by Tempe city manager Andrew Ching and Police Chief Jeff Glover. An investigation is currently underway, but the damage has already been done; Bickings is dead, and he didn’t have to die.

Tempe Town Lake is one of the few places left for the city’s houseless and displaced population. It’s one of the last places in Tempe with public restrooms, public water fountains and, in the sweltering summer months, public shade.

Because of this, it’s also one of Tempe’s most heavily-patrolled areas, with local police circling the area like sharks, waiting for any opportunity to hand out citations or disperse houseless persons from the area.

Once a thriving working-class community in central Arizona, it is now known as home to Arizona State University’s largest campus, a large student population and its main stretch of bars and restaurants on Mill Avenue that leads directly to Tempe Town Lake. The entire community is catered to the student population, and the delineation between ASU Police and the Tempe Police Department is almost non-existent.

Courtesy of Getty Images

As a former resident of nearby Phoenix, I remember trips to Tempe on the local lightrail — itself a bastion of abuse and brutalization of houseless people.

It felt like I was crossing over into an alternate dimension. I remember wearing a backpack just to blend in with the student population, thereby making me all but exempt from police harassment. I also remember seeing crowds of rowdy young men destroying the area while the police sat aimlessly by, only to see those same officers harassing and forcibly removing houseless people from the same areas not moments later.

Arizona currently ranks 14th in the country’s highest population of houseless people, and as Arizona’s population continues to grow at alarming rates, along with the accompanying rise in rental property rates, so too will its population of houseless people.

Bickings himself had recently met with Tempe’s mayor to discuss changes that could be beneficial to what he referred to as the area’s “unsheltered” community.

In their current forms, the cities of Tempe and Phoenix are not equipped to properly address the needs of unsheltered communities across the state. They will continue to be ill-equipped as long as their policies are rooted in anti-homeless architecture, criminalization and an uncaring, unfeeling attitude towards human life that is not directly tied to one of the state’s profitable institutions, namely the universities that generate billions each year.

Bickings deserved better. The unsheltered communities of Arizona do, as well.

Notice any corrections needed? Please email us at corrections@wearemitu.com