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Mother of Arizona man who begged officers for help before he drowned plans to sue for $3 million

A notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleges Tempe police “stood and watched” as Sean Bickings drowned. One officer told him, “OK, I’m not jumping in after you,” according to a transcript provided by the city.

The mother of an Arizona man who pleaded for Tempe police officers to help him before he drowned has filed a wrongful death claim against the city.

Attorneys for Turee Toro said she has suffered from "constant mental and emotional anguish" since her son Sean Bickings died May 28 in the Tempe Town Lake. She is seeking $3 million.

The Nov. 15 notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleges officers failed to stop Bickings, 34, from jumping into the lake, ignored "his desperate pleas for help" as he struggled in the water, and "stood and watched" as he drowned.

"Simply put, the City of Tempe was not prepared for this incident and failed to timely and properly respond to this incident with the urgency with which the situation required," the claim said.

The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. The police department said it does not “discuss possible or ongoing litigation.”

Three officers were called to the city’s Center for the Arts around 5 a.m. on May 28 for a reported disturbance between Bickings, who was homeless, and his partner, according to the claim and the city's account of the incident. The pair, who were cooperative, denied there was a physical argument.

Officers said they were going to run their names through a database for outstanding arrest warrants, which is customary, the city said. During this time, Bickings climbed over a railway between the walkway and the lake and then jumped in.

The city said officers told Bickings that he was not allowed to swim in the lake but he "swam about 30 to 40 yards before repeatedly indicating he was in distress."

Toro's attorneys said in the notice of claim that the officers did not try and stop Bickings from jumping over the railing. It stated that the officers moved along the walkway as Bickings swam and "watched as Mr. Bickings increasingly struggled to stay afloat." When Bickings' partner tried to help him, she was "physically restrained" by one officer and handcuffed by another, according to the document.

"She begged the City of Tempe Police Officers to help Mr. Bickings as she sat there helplessly handcuffed," it said. [The officers] never attempted to rescue Mr. Bickings in any form."

34-year-old Sean Bickings.
34-year-old Sean Bickings.City of Tempe

The incident was caught on police body camera video. In June, the city released a 12 minute edited clip as well as a transcript of what officials said contained comments made by Bickings and the officers.

In the video, an officer said to Bickings, "What are you doing, my friend?" after he climbed over the railing. Before Bickings entered the water, the officer told him that he was not allowed to swim in the lake, the video showed.

The video does not include the moment Bickings drowned.

In one part of the transcript, Bickings repeatedly told officers that he was drowning. "OK, I’m not jumping in after you," an officer responded, according to the transcript. At another point, Bickings said: "I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown." In response, an officer told him, "No, you’re not."

According to the transcript, an officer instructed Bickings to swim to a pylon and "hold on."

"Please help me. Please, please, please," Bicking is noted as saying in the transcript. "I can’t touch. Oh, God. Please help me. Help me."

An officer told Bickings that they were going to get a police boat, according to the transcript. The notice of claim said that the boat can only be operated by two people and the officer had to wait for a sergeant to arrive at the lake.

At around 5:16 a.m., Bickings went underwater and did not re-emerge, the notice of claim said. The document also stated that his body was removed from the water about six hours after he jumped in.

Attorneys for Bickings' mother said they filed the claim to seek justice for his death.

"His drowning caused tremendous grief to family and friends," Benjamin Taylor and Dominic Gomez said in a joint statement on Friday. "We will have additional information to provide in the near future."

The officers, who were not identified by authorities, were placed on routine administrative paid leave following the incident but are now back on duty, a police spokesperson said.