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.
The city acknowledged the claim in a Dec. 6 statement 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.
"His drowning caused tremendous grief to family and friends," Toro's attorneys said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News on Dec. 28. "We will have additional information to provide in the near future.”
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."
Toro is seeking $3 million for what her attorneys described as "constant mental and emotional anguish."
"Ms. Toro has read her Son's final words, his desperate cries for help, and the callous, indifferent responses from the Tempe Police Officers," the notice said. "She will live the rest of her life with the knowledge that her Son's death was completely avoidable."
An administrative review by the Scottsdale Police Department determined that the officers should not have entered the water to attempt to save Bickings given a variety of factors, including the potential for Bickings to "drag down" the officers who were not properly equipped or trained to conduct a water rescue.
But Toro's attorneys pointed out that previous drownings should have prompted the city to prepare officers for water rescues. The claim described five other incidents prior to Bickings's death in which a person drowned or nearly drowned. And while the city "may attempt to argue" that the officers "were not required to attempt to save" Bickings, Tempe police did assist in rescuing a dog from a canal 11 days earlier, and in 2015, officers rescued four people, including two toddlers, from a vehicle that had crashed into the lake.
"However, during the early morning of May 28, 2022, the involved Tempe Police Officers stood by as Mr. Bickings drowned to death in front of them," the notice said. "Their actions and inactions were negligent, grossly negligent, reckless, and/or deliberately indifferent."
In the wake of Bickings's death, the city adopted new water safety measures, including installing water rescue rings with ropes around the lake and training officers on how to use devices called throw bags, which are used by Navy Seals. In August, police officers successfully used a throw bag to rescue a paddleboarder who had fallen off his board.
"It should not have taken Mr. Bickings' death for the City of Tempe to provide simple and necessary life-saving equipment and training to its Officers, employees, and agents," Toro's attorneys wrote.
This post has been updated to include a new statement from Toro's attorneys.