Tempe citizens demand police budget cut, water rescue training after cops watch Black man drown

Groups including PLM Phoenix Metro and White People Against White Supremacy gathered to decry the drowning of Sean Bickings.

Reeling from last month’s drowning of a homeless Black man in Tempe, Arizona — which video footage shows Tempe police officers witnessing without offering any aid — community members and activists gathered outside Tempe City Hall before and during Thursday’s City Council meeting to demand the police department’s budget be cut and those funds diverted to area programs.

The Tempe Police Department budget for fiscal year 2023 is approximately $107.5 million, representing around $2 million less than what was allocated in fiscal year 2022, according the Arizona Republic, citing city documents.

Tempe Town Lake is where 34-year-old Sean Bickings drowned on May 28. The town of Tempe, Arizona is reviewing how to handle water rescues after video showed three police officers appearing to do nothing as Bickings perished. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP, File)

“The mission is to rally, create pressure, and essentially Block the Budget, as it does not adequately reflect the needs of the Tempe residents,” Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Semillas, Poder in Action and White People Against White Supremacy said in a joint statement ahead of the protest decrying the May 28 drowning death of 34-year-old Sean Bickings in Tempe Town Lake.

The organizations make up an alliance, called People’s Budget Tempe, whose stated goal is the diversion of some police funds to other city services. The alliance has several proposals for police dollars, including for food, backyard gardens in lower-income neighborhoods and permanent mental health counselors in Tempe middle schools.

“There’s a lot of programs that the city has that we felt it would be kind of easier to divert money from the police and fund those areas,” said Joel Cornejo of Semillas, a Tempe-based social justice organization. “One of them was counseling for middle school, and another separated calls from the police department and CARE 7.”

Tempe’s Human Resources Department runs the CARE 7 program, which takes a holistic approach to helping residents in crisis.

Representatives of the groups and local citizens spoke at Thursday’s protest-turned-vigil organized to coincide with the City Council meeting days after police released bodycam footage showing the Bickings drowning in Tempe Town Lake. During the gathering, he was described as an active member of the community.

“We are here again. Another community member has died,” Cornejo said at the protest. “Most of these politicians in City Council ran their campaigns on sustainability, housing and programs for our unsheltered neighbors. Then why is our community being killed by the Police Department? Why is our community still being displaced?”

Tempe resident Talia Fuentes-Wolfe also expressed frustration about perceived police behavior, the Republic reported. There’s been “a drastic shift in the culture within our police force (and) how they interact with us, the public,” she said. “I do not support the killing of our citizens, because that’s what is happening.”

The three officers who responded to the call at Tempe Town Lake remain on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave pending the investigation into police response to the drowning. As theGrio has previously reported, the officers’ body-cam footage shows they ignored the pleas for help from both a drowning Bickings and his wife. 

According to the Republic, officials said the city would review police water rescue guidelines and equipment needs near bodies of water. The Tempe police officers union, which offered condolences to Bickings’ family, released a statement earlier this week detailing current water rescue protocols. It has also committed to reforming them.

“Moving forward, we will work for a change in how the City and TPD approach potential water incidents in Tempe Town Lake, including instituting training and equipment changes,” the Tempe Officers Association said in a written statement. “We will work with the City and the community to ensure that such an incident never happens again.”

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