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Sheriff, Local Civic Leaders React To Dad Detained And Questioned About Changing Daughter's Diaper In Public

KPBS reporter John Carroll speaks with Miguel Rodriguez in Santee, Calif. on April 30, 2021.
Roland Lizarondo
KPBS reporter John Carroll speaks with Miguel Rodriguez in Santee, Calif. on April 30, 2021.

“My problem is that they were called at all for a nothing.”

That was what Miguel Rodriguez told KPBS late last month, talking about what happened to him and his 2-year-old daughter Scarlett on the evening of April 27th.

Sheriff, Local Civic Leaders React To Dad Detained And Questioned About Changing Daughter's Diaper In Public
Listen to this story by John Carroll.

He’d walked the two miles from his home to the Vons in Santee with Scarlett in her stroller. But as they were leaving, he discovered that Scarlett had somehow punctured her diaper. She needed to be changed immediately.

“I just came over here to where I’d think there would be less people," Rodriguez said, describing the area where he changed Scarlett's diaper.

But one person saw Rodriguez changing Scarlett and decided it was worth a call to 911.

We requested audio of that 911 call as well as the body camera footage from one of the deputies who showed up. Those requests were denied, but the department did supply a partially redacted transcript of the call. It reveals the caller’s concerns.

"Male was changing juvenile’s diapers on sidewalk. RP (reporting party) was concerned for their welfare …" said an officer on the call.


The reporting party also said Rodriguez “looked transient.”

“This is a really good example of why every call doesn’t need a law enforcement officer as a first responder, or a responder at all,” said local civil rights attorney Genevieve Jones-Wright.

Jones-Wright is the executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance. She said we as a society need to reimagine the role of law enforcement.

But when it comes to this particular incident, she said there are problems, apart from the fact law enforcement was called.

After Scarlett’s accident, Rodriguez called his wife to come pick them up. He was just finishing securing Scarlett in her car seat when the first of two deputies arrived. That deputy questioned Rodriguez about whether he’d ever been arrested and whether he had a record, and Rodriguez says those questions were asked more than once.

“You had inquired whether he was changing a baby, he said yes. The fact that they continued to question this father is completely inappropriate," said Jones-Wright.

She went on to say that the deputy’s actions came close to violating the 4th amendment which protects people against unreasonable searches.

RELATED: Santee Father Questioned By Sheriff’s Deputies After Changing Daughter’s Diaper In Public

But San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore says we should all try to put ourselves in the position of the person who called 911.

“They saw something that looked suspicious,” said Gore, defending the person who called.

Gore said calls like this place law enforcement in a difficult position. But he said not responding to the call was not an option.

“What if the child had not been OK? What if the child had been abducted by somebody and it wasn’t their kid? Then, what would the second guessing have been there?” Gore said.

Putting aside the appropriateness of repeatedly questioning Rodriguez whether he’d ever been arrested or had a record, Gore said the deputy was polite throughout the course of the encounter, and Rodriguez agrees with that.

“I think Mr. Rodriguez was treated like hopefully any member of the community whatever part of this county it was in, would be treated,” the Sheriff said.

But Rodriguez told KPBS that he’s all but certain law enforcement would not have been called if he didn’t have brown skin.

“I’ve changed countless diapers on children in public settings, cause as a parent you gotta do what you gotta do to take care of your kid wherever you are,” said Chair of the Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher.

From his position as chair of the Board, Fletcher has worked toward what he sees as making society more equitable, and that includes policing.

He said what happened to Miguel Rodriguez would never have happened to someone who looks like him, but if it did, “I don’t know that I’d be in a similar situation where my record would be run and I’d be asked multiple times if I have a criminal record, and I think that is at the heart of what we’re trying to transform and change when we talk about being a better society and a more colorblind society.”

Sheriff Gore said the bottom line for him is that the deputy handled the situation appropriately. He said the controversy surrounding this whole incident amounts to making a mountain out of a molehill.

But it seems clear that for people of color, what are mountains and what are molehills is a matter of perspective and life experience.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.