911 Dispatcher Who Told Drowning Woman to 'Shut Up' Because She Was 'Freaking Out' Cleared of Wrongdoing

A 911 dispatcher in Arkansas who was criticized for being callous when she told a drowning woman to "shut up" just before she died, was not negligent in carrying out her duties, an investigation has found.

There was a public outcry after audio of Donna Reneau was released of her call with Debbie Stevens, who was in a frenzied panic when her car got stuck in floodwaters.

Stevens had been delivering newspapers in the early hours of August 24 when she got caught up in torrential rainfall that caused flash flooding throughout Fort Smith.

Stuck in her car, she made two phone calls, one to her mother-in-law and one to 911. In the recording of the 911 call, Reneau told Stevens off for driving into flood waters and even told her to "shut up".

‘I don’t know why you’re freaking out’

A 911 dispatcher is being criticized for the way she handled a call from a woman in Fort Smith, Ark., who ultimately drowned in her car.https://t.co/yc6byA2APb

— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) August 31, 2019

#DonnaReneau on Aug. 24 told #DebbieStevens to “shut up” before she drowned inside her vehicle during flash floods in Fort Smith.https://t.co/tnx9qk5dBc

— Max Bryan (@MBryanTimesRec) December 22, 2019

Stevens, 47, who was screaming for help, heard Reneau say: "You're not going to die. I don't know why you're freaking out," according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. When help arrived 80 minutes after the call, she had drowned.

The case led to a Change.org petition—so far signed by nearly 25,000 people—calling for the "investigation and criminal prosecution" of Reneau for "negligence and ignoring this woman's pleas for help."

However, an investigation by the Fort Smith Police Department said there was no wrongdoing in how she dispatched first responders.

"When dealing with someone during a critical incident, particularly when the person is in hysterics, it is often necessary to take a stern or commanding tone, or to even raise one's voice," Dean Pitts, the police department's deputy director of administration concluded.

Reneau, who had already handed in her resignation and it was her last day in the job, said she took the abrupt tone because she needed to get important information from Stevens to save her life.

"She regretted telling her she was not going to die most of all, but she also regretted not being more kind and understanding," the report stated.

It added: "Reneau said she realized she should not have said some of the things she did but much of it was necessary to get Debbie's attention so that she could get important information from her."

In a statement to Newsweek, The Fort Smith Police Department said: "The full Criminal Investigation is included as well, which shows no evidence of criminal negligence or activities on former Operator Reneau's part.

"In fact, the evidence shows that while Operator Reneau spoke rudely to Mrs. Stevens during the call, she actually bumped the call up in the order of importance shortly after receiving it," the statement said.

Among the changes the report recommends is developing pre-approved questions, hiring more call supervisors, and encouraging operators to take training courses to deal with flood emergencies.

After the incident, Fort Smith police said in a statement that they had been "inundated with 911 calls" on that night and because Stevens could not describe her exact location, a quick rescue was impossible.

Interim police chief Danny Baker said in a statement on August 29: "All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome."

This story has been updated to include a statement by the Fort Smith Police Department to Newsweek.

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(File photo) A close-up photo of police lights by night. Police in Fort Smith, Arkansas, have cleared a 911 dispatcher who was criticized for being callous in a call with a drowning woman. iStock