By David Leibowitz
Two recent news stories illustrate how wretched it is to serve as a police officer in the 21st century, a time of rampant negativity, social media virality and naked hostility toward law enforcement.
Both stories occurred in Tempe, along Town Lake. Both involve men who entered that lake of their own accord.
One story ended in tragedy. The other ended in a save. You can guess which one you likely never heard about.
First, a disclaimer. By day, I am a public relations consultant. Among my clients: the Tempe Officers Association. I represent a number of other public safety organizations, so I am absolutely biased in favor of the cops.
With that said, my clients have not paid me to write this. I’m doing so because I believe it needs to be said.
The tragedy centers on Sean Bickings, 34, a longtime presence in Tempe nicknamed “Madrox.” Bickings by all accounts was a “big teddy bear,” joking, friendly, even as he and his wife struggled to find shelter on a consistent basis.
On May 28, Tempe police received a 911 call reporting a disturbance between the couple. Body camera footage shows a long conversation between Bickings, his wife and the officers. Then Bickings decides to climb over a 4-foot fence and enter Town Lake.
One of the officers tells Bickings, “OK, I’m not jumping in after you.” Bickings is encouraged to swim to safety, but he can’t. He disappears beneath the water, gone.
What I know in my heart is that no person on earth wanted this story so awfully, including the officers on scene.
I also know that the cops followed their training, which did not include water rescue, and city policy, which was not to enter the lake, but instead to get the Tempe police boat (check) and summon Tempe Fire (check).
Even so, the story became a national sensation, covered by the networks and splashed across social media, with many commenters noting that Bickings was Black and accusing the cops of racism.
I’m a realist, a guy who has spent 30 years covering news professionally. I understand why this story got the coverage and commentary it did.
Still, I wish the hubbub had also included some vital context — about police policy, training, and the fact that the officers had not been provided with equipment to save potential drowning victims. The city has changed all of that in the past few weeks, providing training and throw bags to officers. That’s a good thing, as the events of September 20 prove.
This story didn’t go national, nor did it make a ripple on Twitter or TikTok.
It began as an indecent exposure call. Police arrived and found a naked man in the lake. Officers threw him a water rescue device multiple times, but he refused to grab it.
“He was pulled into the police boat without incident and turned over to (Tempe Fire),” KTAR radio reported. “He was transported to a hospital for evaluation.”
All told, three news outlets covered this story, a few hundred words total.
Again, I’m a realist. News involves conflict, mayhem and gotcha moments. Happy endings aren’t the stuff of headlines and clicks.
But I wonder how the rest of us would feel working in a job where to do good is to be invisible while to make a mistake is to be damned? A job where you’re expected to risk your life for people who despise you, and where you’d best be perfect, because keyboard warriors are lying in wait to pass judgment.
That’s policing in 2022. I mourn that fact just as I feel for the loved ones of Sean Bickings. Everyone loses in stories like this.