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After a man drowns in Arizona, officials say police aren't trained in water rescues

This screenshot from police body camera footage shows Sean Bickings, 34, shortly before he entered Tempe Town Lake and drowned as three police officers stood nearby.
City of Tempe
This screenshot from police body camera footage shows Sean Bickings, 34, shortly before he entered Tempe Town Lake and drowned as three police officers stood nearby.

After three police officers stood by as a man drowned in a Tempe, Ariz. lake last month, questions have arisen about why law enforcement officials on the scene didn't enter the water to try to save him.

"I'm drowning," Sean Bickings, 34, said to officers, according to a transcript of police body camera video captured during the encounter.

"Okay, I'm not jumping in after you," one unnamed officer says.

Moments earlier, police had been talking to Bickings after being called to the scene for a domestic disturbance.

As they were putting his and his companion's names into a database to check for warrants, Bickings entered Tempe Town Lake and began to swim away. He quickly became distressed in the water, and as he pleaded for help, officers continued to speak with him but didn't go in the lake.

According to the Tempe Officers Association, the union that represents city police, Tempe police officers receive no training in water rescues and don't have the equipment necessary to help drowning victims.

"Attempting such a high-risk rescue could easily result in the death of the person in the water and the officer, who could be pulled down by a struggling adult," the group said in a statement.

Instead, police officers are trained to call the fire department or get the Tempe police boat or both, which the association said is what the officers in this case did.

"The drowning of Sean Bickings in the early morning of May 28 is a human tragedy," the group added. "Our grief mirrors our community's grief. No one wanted this incident to end as it did."

The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which sets police academy curriculum in Arizona and certifies police officers, confirmed that applicants are not required to show swimming proficiency and there is no basic training related to water rescues.

The Tempe Police Department is conducting an investigation of Bickings' death, which will be reviewed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The Scottsdale Police Department is also investigating the police response.

The three officers who responded to the call and were present when Bickings drowned are on "non-disciplinary paid administrative leave" as the investigations unfold, which officials say is standard practice.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez

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