A community is outraged after an Arkansas police department released audio of a 911 operator telling a woman to "shut up" before she drowned in a flash flood.
Debra Stevens, 47, was delivering newspapers for the Southwest Times Record early in the morning on Saturday, Aug. 24, when her car was swept away in a flash flood, the Fort Smith Police Department said in a statement. By the time first responders arrived more than an hour later, Stevens had drowned.
On Thursday, the Police Department released the audio of the 911 call Stevens had placed. The department said it was only doing so with "great reluctance" after numerous requests from the media.
The 22-minute recording of the 911 call has angered local residents, who are calling the dispatcher's demeanor and response "criminal" and "rude and condescending."
The audio was released online by KFSM-TV, among other local media outlets, though it was edited to remove sensitive content. It begins after Stevens called for help at 4:38 a.m., according to the Police Department.
Aric Mitchell, a spokesperson for the department, told BuzzFeed News the dispatcher who answered is named Donna Reneau. According to a post in February on the department's Facebook page, Reneau had been named "Fire Dispatcher of the Year" in 2019.
Throughout the call, Stevens is heard crying and begging for help, saying she is scared and she doesn't want to die. After Reneau tells her to calm down, she repeatedly apologizes.
Around nine minutes in, when a crying Stevens asks someone to save her, Reneau responds, "Am I not on the phone with you trying to get you some help? Then stop.
"You're not gonna die, I don't know why you're freaking out," Reneau said. "I know the water level is high ... but you freaking out doing nothing but losing your oxygen level up in there, so calm down."
When Stevens says her phone is brand-new and she is worried it is going to die, Reneau scolds her, saying, "Do you really care about your brand-new phone? You're over there crying for your life." She also chides Stevens for worrying that her car is going to catch on fire, saying, "How? You're underwater."
About 10 minutes into the call, Stevens apologizes for her demeanor and if she is being "rude," saying she has never been in this situation before.
"Well, this will teach you; next time don't drive in the water," Reneau responded. Stevens responded that she didn't see the water before she was swept away.
"I don't see how you didn't see it, you had to go right over it," Reneau responded. Stevens insisted she didn't see it, but Reneau said, "The water just didn't appear."
According to a timeline released by the Police Department, rescuers arrived to search for Stevens less than 15 minutes later, at 4:50 a.m. However, they had trouble finding Stevens and her vehicle.
The Police Department said in a statement said that the rescue was hampered by the fact that Stevens was "having trouble describing her exact location and flooding limited the ability of first responders to reach her."
Throughout this, Reneau assured Stevens she would be fine. At one point, she said that even though Stevens said she couldn't swim, she probably could just stand up and wade through the water, unless she was "3 feet tall."
Around 19 minutes into the call, as Stevens tried to shout her location to the dispatchers, Reneau said, "Ms. Debbie, you're going to have to shut up, OK?"
The call ends around 22 minutes, with Stevens screaming.
The rescuers reported to the Police Department at 5:02 a.m. that they had found Stevens' car but needed a rescue boat to reach it. The boat arrived at 5:16 a.m.
Finally, at 5:58 a.m., about an hour and 20 minutes after Stevens called 911, rescuers reached her car.
"When first responders were finally able to reach Mrs. Stevens and extract her from the vehicle, she had tragically succumbed to drowning," the Police Department said.
The audio caused a firestorm among residents online, many of whom commented on the department's Facebook page.
"The disrespect and disregard that was shown to the victim is disgusting and horrifyingly sad," one woman from Fort Smith wrote. "She, and her employer, need to assume their responsibility in the dispatcher’s actions. She was trained better than that, I’m sure."
In a press conference after the audio was released, Interim Police Chief Danny Baker said he understands his community's concerns after hearing the tape.
"However, at the end of the day, we were working diligently to get to her, we were doing everything we possibly could to save her," he said.
Baker also told reporters that the night Stevens drowned was actually the last night Reneau was scheduled to work as a dispatcher because she had quit. Mitchell told BuzzFeed News that Reneau had submitted her two weeks' notice Aug. 9.
Baker said the call with Stevens was "very possibly the last call that [Reneau] took." He emphasized she wasn't fired, and said the dispatcher was upset about what occurred.
"It's a tragic thing, I understand that," he said. "Are there things that we need to look at and our response? Absolutely." He said the department had begun an investigation shortly after the incident, though not into Reneau because she no longer works there. He said, however, that they would be examining how they respond to flooding. Mitchell said the department had no further comment.
Friends described Stevens to the Southwest Times Record, where Stevens worked delivering papers, as "committed, loving, servant-hearted, kind, gentle, [and] good with children." They said Stevens was very involved in her church, where she taught preschool ministry.
Stevens was also friends with Fort Smith's city director, Neal Martin, who paid tribute to her on Facebook.
″[She] was a model of being a servant, doing what God called you to do, and serving your community and friends,” Martin told the Southwest Times Record. “If people were willing to give of themselves like she did, I think our city, our state, and our country would be a lot better.”
Friend Latonya Stolz told the newspaper that Stevens was hardworking and very dedicated to her job.
"She would deliver in the snow and ice when almost no one else would,” she said. “This goes to show just how dedicated to her job and to pleasing others she was.”
This article has been updated to correct a typo in the timeline and in spelling.