Sean Bickings, 34, sought help for Tempe’s homeless community from Mayor Corey Woods
Two days before he drowned in Tempe Town Lake while begging three police officers for help, Sean Bickings sat down with Mayor Corey Woods to discuss ways to assist the city’s homeless community.
Mr Bickings, known by his nickname Madrocks, had ideas about how to help unsheltered residents like himself, and would often advocate on their behalf, friends say.
“Sean was a leader of his community,” close friend Ben Jeffrey told AZFamily.com.
“He was asking questions about how to get out of his homeless situation.”
Recounting the meeting, Mayor Woods said in a Facebook post that Mr Bickings had “graciously volunteered” to work with city officials and nonprofits to try to improve life for residents without housing.
He said Mr Bickings arrived after the meeting had started, and that he gave up his seat at the head of the table as he wanted the discussion to be led by the community it affected.
“I didn’t feel that it was necessary or appropriate to have an elected official at the head of the table when I was there to listen to the voices of those that were invited to speak on their experiences.”
Mr Bickings also wanted advice on how to deal with an outstanding police arrest warrant, friends say.
Mayor Woods did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent, and it’s not clear whether an accommodation on his legal problems was discussed or reached.
Two days later on 28 May, police were called to reports of a disturbance between Mr Bickings and his wife Susan at the to the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge at 5am.
Edited bodycam footage released by the Tempe Police Department shows that when they arrived on the scene, the couple told officers that no physical altercation had taken place.
The officers then told them they would run their names through a police database to check for any arrest warrants.
At that point, Mr Bickings is seen in the bodycam footage telling police he is going “for a swim”.
“I’m gonna go for a swim. I’m free to go right?” Mr Bickings says.
The 34-year-old then clambers over a metal fence and sits on the edge of the water.
The officers stand watching from the water’s edge and tell him he can’t go swimming in the lake.
“You’re not allowed to swim in the lake,” one of the officers tells him.
Mr Bickings then jumps into the water below the bridge and starts to swim away.
The officers make no movement to retrieve him from the water, simply watching as they discuss “how far” they think he will manage to swim, according to a transcript.
Mr Bickings can be heard telling the officers: “I’m drowning.” An officer tells Mr Bickings to swim to a pylon, but he says he is unable to.
“Okay, I’m not jumping in after you,” the officers responds.
Moments later, Mr Bickings says: “I can’t touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me.”
An unidentified witness then offers to jump in to try to save him.
“Please stop being so aggressive,” the witness says.
“Oh my God, is he okay? Stop, why are you doing this?”
Mr Bickings is not seen again. His body was recovered by the Tempe Fire Rescue Team around six hours later at 11.30am.
According to Arizona Republic, an initial police statement stated that said police had “immediately” started rescue efforts.
Police also described Mr Bickings as “uncooperative” with rescue efforts in their original statement.
The Tempe Police Department are investigating the death, with oversight from the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
The three police officers who attended the incident have been placed on paid administrative leave while the inter-agency inquiry is carried out. Police have said the bodycam footage cannot be released in its entirety “due to its graphic, sensitive nature”.
The apparent inaction by police officers provoked anger and disbelief among his friends, and Mr Bickings’ family is reportedly considering pursuing a civil lawsuit against the city.
“To hear of someone standing there while his wife screams in the background to ‘save my husband, I don’t have anything without him,’ it’s despicable,” a friend of several years, Orionya Jensen, told AZFamilycom.
Black Lives Matter Phoenix activist Jamaar Williams told Arizona Republic that the threat of police violence had contributed to Mr Bickings’ death.
“The whole reason Madrocks was scared is because of the threat, it was police violence,” Mr Williams told the news outlet.
“Police don’t actually have to be exercising that violence to cause that reaction which is fear, panic, and self-survival.”
The Tempe Officers Association has defended the officers’ actions.
“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 police union said in a statement.
“Officers are trained to call the Fire Department … or get the Tempe Police boat. That is what officers did here.”
The police union added that officers do not receive training in water rescue and do not have equipment to help people who are drowning.
However, the incident’s “grief mirrors our community’s grief”, the union said, adding: “No one wanted this incident to end as it did.”
Mr Bickings’ devastated friends hope that his death will result in more safety measures being put in place around Tempe Town Lake.
They want to see buoys and lifejackets placed around the lake, which is part of the Salt River that runs from Tempe west through suburban Phoenix.