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Special Report: Tempe Town Lake drowning lawsuit moves forward

Photo of water of Tempe Town Lake
Tempe Communications Director Nikki Ripley provided the Digital Free Press with information regarding safety improvements coming to Tempe Town Lake — one in particular that can make a significant difference. (File Photos/

Tempe Town Lake drowning lawsuit now at Superior Court

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

A lawsuit filed Friday, May 26, in Maricopa County Superior Court alleges the municipality of Tempe did not create enough safety measures or train responding police officers adequately ultimately playing a role in the death of Sean Bickings, who drowned in Tempe Town Lake.

“We are seeking justice for Sean Bickings who lost his life by drowning in Tempe Town Lake while Tempe police officers watched from the shore,” said Attorney Benjamin Taylor of Taylor & Gomez. “The city of Tempe and Tempe law enforcement promised new safety measurements following Sean’s tragic death and a year later we have yet to see these actions implemented. We hope this lawsuit will encourage the city of Tempe to take the necessary steps to ensure no one else carelessly loses their life by drowning in Tempe Town Lake.”

The lawsuit alleges on May 28, 2022, a call to police was made by a Downtown Tempe Authority representative at 4:57 a.m. and upon arrival, the court filings state, Tempe police officers encounter Mr. Bickings and his partner, a female, near the Tempe Center for the Arts and Elmore Pedestrian Bridge.

Following police contact, the lawsuit alleges, Mr. Bickings climbs over the rails and enters Tempe Town Lake.

“The body-worn camera footage released to the public by defendant Tempe Police Department is redacted between 5:14 a.m. and 5:22 a.m. In the transcripts and captured on the unreleased footage, defendant Bennett stood on as decedent Bickings gasped out that: ‘I’m gonna drown.’ In response to Decedent Bickings, Defendant Bennett stated, ‘No you’re not.’ Decedent Bickings replied, ‘yes I am,’ Mr. Taylor states on the record in his legal filing.

“Defendant Gebbie, with no apparent urgency, told Decedent Bickings to swim to a pylon. When Decedent Bickings gasped out that he could not do that, Defendant Gebbie responded ‘Okay. I’m not jumping in after you.” Decedent Bickings then pleaded: “Please help me. Please. Please. Please…I can’t touch. Oh God. Please help me. Help me.’

The lawsuit alleges Mr. Bickings went under water at 5:16 a.m.

“Part of the lawsuit, as you will see if that body camera footage shows the officers just watching Sean Bickings drown right in front of them,” Mr. Taylor told the Arizona Digital Free Press Tuesday, June 6. “Tempe Town Lake has been put on notice that there have been prior drownings and there still has not been any life-saving devices installed anywhere — if your child was to fall into the lake there is nothing there to save your child or anybody else. If they had any of this equipment we were told was going to appear Sean Bickings would be alive today.”

In the May 2022 lawsuit at Superior Court, Mr. Taylor outlines documented cases of other drownings at Tempe Town Lake with different response circumstances.

“History has shown many people have drowned in Tempe Town Lake and they have known about this,” he said. “We have also learned the officers have not been properly trained and it took them hours to recover the body. They should have done more prior to this lawsuit.”

Mr. Taylor says a court date has not yet been set but is seeking a Tier 3 jury trial that could carry a penalty of $300,000 in punitive damages.

Tempe Town Lake drowning lawsuit moves forward

Tempe Communications Director Nikki Ripley provided the Digital Free Press with information regarding safety improvements coming to Tempe Town Lake — one in particular that can make a significant difference.

“A fiscal year 2023-24 operating budget proposal is advancing to official Council consideration and a June vote for $1.8 million for the first phase of a Park Ranger program,” she said of the budget line item. Park Rangers, if approved, would be managed out of the Community Services Department and would be responsible for proactive patrols in city parks including the Tempe Town Lake area.

Ms. Ripley provided further details of new safety measures coming online:

Tempe Town Lake Flotation rings

A comprehensive plan to install flotation rings at Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Park Lake is on track with installation beginning last week. The city has consulted with experts about products and placement, and has waited for product delivery and hardware modifications to suit these customized locations.

Once the units were ordered and delivered, they needed to be modified to allow for ADA accessibility. The rings are being placed at access points of the two lakes. For example, at Tempe Town Lake, they are located at the marina, docks, pedestrian bridge, etc.

Throw bags

As the city of Tempe announced in August 2022, Tempe Police officers now have water rescue throw bags similar to ones used by the U.S. Navy Seals, and they have received training in how to use them. Tempe Police use of the throw bags has led to seven individuals being rescued since August.

Tempe Town Lake warrant resolution program is also available to those seeking to resolve issuance for arrests.

“The court continues to offer assistance to those in need. The public can still appear at the Tempe Municipal Court, Monday through Friday 9 to 11:30 a.m. to address issues related to resolving warrants, reinstating payments plans, and rescheduling court dates,” said Tempe Court Administrator Alexis Allen. “The court has and will continue to participate in community events such as Project Connect and the Maricopa County Veterans StandDown, where community partners along with the court are working to address issues related to health, housing and homelessness, and workforce development needs.”

Of Note: Tempe Municipal Court helped 73 veterans at this year’s StandDown, including those from 14 local Valley jurisdictions, plus Wickenburg (in addition to Tempe). Three Tempe judges participated and two Tempe staff members. Participation in community events has helped the court provide information and options to those who are wanting to address barriers that may be limiting access to certain services.

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