Tempe Town Lake drowning spurs safety changes

Posted 8/19/22

The city of Tempe is acting to honor the life of Sean Bickings and safeguard people around bodies of water, following the May 28 drowning of Bickings, who was an unsheltered community member.

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Tempe Town Lake drowning spurs safety changes


The city of Tempe is acting to honor the life of Sean Bickings and safeguard people around bodies of water, following the May 28 drowning of Bickings, who was an unsheltered community member.

New measures include water rescue devices around Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Lake and a personally issued water rescue ‘throw bag’ for every Tempe Police officer, among other initiatives.

The city underscores that Bickings’ death is a true tragedy, according to a news release.

“Tragic events can prompt genuine reflection,” said City Manager Andrew Ching in a statement. “Tempe is a caring, compassionate community, and we take seriously the responsibility to examine our approaches and transform after devastating events.”

Rescue equipment, training, policy

Tempe will install water rescue rings connected to 100-foot ropes around Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Lake this fall. The city has purchased the equipment and is working to determine the best placements and ways to secure the devices.

In addition to their new water rescue throw bags similar to ones used by the U.S. Navy Seals, Tempe Police officers have received training in how to use them. The department is developing a new rescue policy modeled on those of other cities with major bodies of water. The policy should be completed this summer.

All Tempe Police officers will complete training this year in the Transformational Policing Model. Police Chief Jeff Glover initiated bringing the nationally known coaching program to the department in 2021 and training started earlier this year. The model works to educate and bring local police and community members of color together to address historic challenges and successfully partner for the future. 

Warrant Resolution Program

Tempe Municipal Court staff are working on a program to help unsheltered people address outstanding court matters, such as misdemeanor arrest warrants, outstanding fines and fees, and suspended driver’s licenses. Warrants can be significant barriers for people in deciding to accept services to end their homelessness; they worry they will be arrested for relatively minor offenses from their past. Tempe is working to create a path to warrant resolution and connect individuals to services. This opportunity would be offered at certain outreach events, as well as at the court each Monday through Friday, between 9-11:30 a.m., during open walk-in docket hours.  

Automatic joint response for Police and CARE 7

An additional change involves the automatic co-response of Tempe Police and CARE 7 for calls involving homelessness, homicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse. CARE 7 is the city’s longstanding crisis response team. Previously CARE 7 was dispatched when police or fire personnel requested support at incidents; that will continue for all but the types of calls above. In those types of calls, automatic co-response will be the new model.

Investigations and officer status

At Tempe’s request, the Scottsdale Police Department conducted an administrative review of the Tempe Police response. Scottsdale concluded, after speaking to local law enforcement experts in water-related job assignments, that the Tempe officers should not have attempted a rescue by jumping into the water. Several reasons were cited, including the reality that drowning victims can physically overwhelm their rescuers. In a continued effort to be transparent, Tempe is posting all documents and updates that are able to be released to the city website. A copy of the Scottsdale review is posted under the “Documents” tab.

As a result of Scottsdale’s conclusions, the three Tempe officers who responded to the May 28 call are now back on duty following paid administrative leave since the incident.

Tempe Police is currently conducting its own death investigation in the case. This is expected to be finished by late summer. When completed, Tempe has requested that the Arizona Department of Public Safety review the investigation.

Tempe, Arizona, first responders, community, Tempe Town Lake