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Three officers allegedly look on as homeless man drowns

Man later identified by authorities as Sean Bickings is seen in police bodycam video released by city of Tempe, Ariz. swimming away in manmade lake on May 28, 2022. he is the tiny figure beneath the hands folded on the guardrail. City of Tempe, AriZ.

Tempe, Ariz. — Three Tempe police officers are on non-disciplinary administrative paid leave after allegedly not helping a homeless man who drowned in a man-made city lake.

Tempe police have released edited officers' body camera footage of the May 28 incident.

According to a transcript of the footage provided by the city, 34-year-old Sean Bickings told Tempe police he was drowning and begged officers for help.

Police said Bickings apparently jumped into the lake in an attempt to evade officers after officials did a background check and found three outstanding warrants.

CBS Phoenix affiliate KPHO-TV reports the incident started when Tempe police officers responded to a call about an argument between Bickings and his wife, who lived outside the Tempe Center For The Arts.

While officers were talking to them, Bickings jumped in the water and swam away. It was the last time he was seen alive on the 11-minute edited video.

Orionya Jensen, who knew Bickings for years and was once homeless herself, told the station, "That's all I can describe it as --  it was devastating."

The station says a transcript has Bickings' last words as, "I'm drowning, I'm drowning."

After an officer guides him to a pylon, Bickings says he can't make it, and the officer replies, "OK. I'm not jumping in after you."

"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," Jensen said.

The Tempe Officers Association said in a statement that the officers have no training in water rescues or any equipment for them. The officers, the association said, would be at risk of drowning themselves if they tried to save Bickings.

So instead, the officers called in a police boat which is, the association says, the correct protocol.

The association also said the officers couldn't detain Bickings since he and his wife denied having had a physical fight.

Local attorney Benjamin Taylor, who isn't affiliated with the case, told KPHO the family has a strong case against the city of Tempe.

"Here is a failure to serve and protect," he said. "The fact that they failed to render aid as he was dying, he was pleading for help, that definitely makes Tempe liable for this man's death."

According to the transcript, a person identified in the document as a witness attempted to jump into the lake to help Bickings, who didn't resurface.

A city fire department rescue team recovered Bickings' body and pronounced him dead.

Tempe officials have asked the Arizona Department of Public Safety to investigate the police response to the drowning.

Of Bickings, Jensen said, "He was a thinker, always had something thought-provoking to say."

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