Family of man who drowned at Tempe Town Lake officially sues city

The family of a man who drowned at Tempe Town Lake about a year ago filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming Tempe has made necessary safety improvements.
Published: May. 31, 2023 at 2:02 PM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — The family of Sean Bickings, the man who drowned at Tempe Town Lake last year, has now filed a lawsuit against the City of Tempe. The paperwork was submitted on Friday.

Bickings died on May 28, 2022, when he jumped into the water while trying to avoid being arrested because of various warrants. Officers did not jump in after him and instead immediately call for a police boat, which is what police said was standard procedure. The story gained national attention as officers on land watched Bickings go under.

The lawsuit had been long awaited after Bickings’ mother and her attorneys filed a notice of claim last November. The filing said there was a call from the Tempe Fire-Medical Rescue Department about 15 minutes after Bickings went into the water, saying, “Stand down-not sending anyone in the water.”

Months after the drowning, the City Of Tempe promised water rescue throw bags and water rescue rings tied to 100-foot ropes slated to be installed around Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Lake last fall. But, while city leaders said officers got training on how to use the throw bags, there are still no signs of the equipment at either lake.

“The City of Tempe and Tempe law enforcement promised new safety measurements following Sean’s tragic death, and a year later, we have yet to see these actions implemented,” the family’s attorney, Benjamin Taylor, said in a statement. “We hope this lawsuit will encourage the City of Tempe to take the necessary steps to ensure no one else carelessly loses their life by drowning in Tempe Town Lake.”

The lawsuit details past drowning instances that happened at the lake, adding that the city lacked proper safety measures. It also claims that Tempe’s officers weren’t capable of properly handling Bickings at the lake. The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and while it doesn’t request a specific amount of money, the notice of claim said the family wanted $3 million.

Edited body-cam video showed police officers talking to Bickings close to the water, when Bickings climbed to the bottom and told officers, “I’m going for a swim.” Another officer replies, “You can’t swim in the lake, man.” Bickings then jumps into the lake and swims until he’s underneath the bridge.

“So, what’s your plan right now?” An officer asks Bickings.

“I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown,” Bickings replies.

Moments later, the officer says, “OK, I’m not jumping in after you.” Bickings’ body was pulled out of the water by Tempe’s Fire Dive and Rescue team nearly six hours later.

At the time of the drowning, the city said it wasn’t the correct procedure for officers to jump in after people in the water, and the officers did the right thing in calling for a boat to rescue Bickings. Family lawyers rejected that argument, pointing to when two Tempe officers helped rescue a dog from a canal by holding onto a good Samaritan who saved the dog. It happened 11 days before Bickings drowned.

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