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911 operator rude, but did her job in drowning call, review by Fort Smith police shows

by Clara Turnage, Thomas Saccente | December 20, 2019 at 9:51 p.m.
This screen shot from a Fort Smith police officer’s body camera shows responders walking through a flooded area near where Debra Stevens drowned early Saturday before the rescuers could get to her.

FORT SMITH — A review of the death of a woman who drowned in August while on the phone with a dispatcher suggests the Fort Smith Police Department make changes to hiring and oversight of 911 call operators.

The department on Friday released its internal review of the actions of 911 call operator Donna Reneau and emergency responders during the Aug. 24 drowning of Debra Stevens, a newspaper carrier.

Stevens drowned in her car near 5801 Kinkead Ave. after torrential rainfall resulted in flash flooding throughout the city. About 4 inches of rain fell in just a few hours.

In the recording of the 911 call, which drew national attention, Reneau told Stevens to “shut up” and chastised her for driving into floodwaters.

Though the department received hundreds of phone calls saying that Reneau’s actions were disrespectful to the dying woman, the review concluded that Reneau performed her duties as required.

“Despite the manner in which Reneau spoke to Stevens, I can find no indication of negligence in Reneau’s actions in dispatching first responders, nor in the actions of those who responded to the scene,” wrote Dean Pitts, the police department’s deputy director of administration, who led the internal review.

Reneau had turned in her notice two weeks before Stephens’ death, and Aug. 24 was her last day as a 911 operator. Reneau faced no criminal charges in the death.

Read Saturday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for the full story.

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