Does Being a Victim of Crime Shift a Politician’s Views?

Representative Mary Gay Scanlon speaks about having her car stolen from her at gunpoint.

Illustration of a donkey towing a car
The Atlantic

A neoconservative, Irving Kristol famously joked, is a liberal mugged by reality. What, then, is a liberal who has been mugged by, well, muggers—or rather, carjackers?

The question isn’t academic. Last month, in separate, unrelated events, two Democratic lawmakers were carjacked at gunpoint. On December 21, Illinois state Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford had her car stolen in suburban Chicago. The next day, U.S. Representative Mary Gay Scanlon’s car was boosted in Philadelphia.

Any pair of crimes committed against lawmakers would gain headlines, but this situation was particularly remarkable. Lightford and Scanlon both have been vocal advocates for criminal-justice-reform legislation. In January 2021, Lightford helped shepherd through a package of reforms, which included requiring body cameras for all police officers in Illinois and ending cash bail. Scanlon, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has pushed for changes to the justice system since before entering Congress, and has sponsored or co-sponsored a slew of reform-minded bills. As a result, the crimes drew not only the standard sort of rubbernecking that comes to any incident involving a prominent figure but also some snarky and smug coverage from the right.

“It was only a matter of time before the [nationwide grand theft auto] surge—part of a massive increase in certain serious crimes—affected lawmakers who have pushed to weaken, or even cripple, the criminal-justice system tasked with addressing it,” Charles Fain Lehman wrote in the New York Post. “The question now is if these same lawmakers will moderate their support for ‘criminal-justice reform’ or charge ahead with radical changes.”

Lehman’s characterization of these reforms is debatable—much of the proposed reforms are in fact quite incremental. But even so, his question is a worthy one, especially in the midst of a spike in violent crime that has threatened any momentum for the exact sorts of reforms these lawmakers have supported. So I asked Scanlon. (Lightford did not respond to a request for comment.)

“You know, being carjacked was scary, but the right-wing reaction was worse,” she deadpanned. “I have no more patience with people with itchy Twitter fingers than itchy trigger fingers. Both of these were forms of bullying. These teens saw a not-very-tall woman standing next to her car and bullied me out of my car. And to have a whole political system jump in and try to bully my positions and say they were something when they’re not—that’s just wrong.”

The crime occurred in the middle of the afternoon, as Scanlon and a staffer were leaving a meeting in FDR Park in South Philadelphia, in her district.

“The carjacking itself was mercifully brief,” she told me. “My district director and I were in a parking lot in a public park … This car pulled up behind mine, and eventually, two teens with guns got out and came over to me and said, ‘Give us the car,’ which I did. Then we kind of backed away and hid behind another car, and they left in the car they’d come in and my car.”

By the time she’d finished speaking with police, calling her insurance provider, and making it home, the news had broken, and Scanlon started receiving messages from friends and family wishing well—and also a cousin, who was surprised to hear, in the news, that Scanlon supported defunding the police. Scanlon was surprised too: She said she’s never been in favor of defunding, and noted that she has supported funds for community policing, including in the $1.9 trillion stimulus passed last year.

But Scanlon also co-sponsored the Mental Health Justice Act in 2021. The bill, which hasn’t passed the House, would provide funding to local governments to establish teams of alternative responders with special training to deal with emergency calls concerning people in mental-health crises. The idea is not especially radical. Many American cities have instituted programs that send unarmed responders either in place of or alongside police (though their effects are not well quantified). The premise behind these alternative responses is fairly simple: Because police are trained to deal with law enforcement, not behavioral health, more specifically trained responders will be better able to help people in crisis and prevent cases of officers shooting citizens. The mental-health-response units are intended only for these behavioral calls, not for responding to violent crimes like carjackings.

Scanlon describes her support for the bill as personal. In October, shortly after arriving on the scene, Philadelphia police shot and killed Walter Wallace, who was holding a knife and had struggled with mental health. The death set off protests in Philadelphia. The city had piloted a program to have a mental-health responder embedded at the 911 center, but it didn’t have funding for full-time coverage, and no one was on duty when Wallace’s brother called 911 for help.

Moderate supporters of these programs usually say they don’t favor defunding the police, though the eventual result might be a smaller role for sworn officers—and as a result, a smaller budget too. (Many avowed defund-the-police advocates also want alternate responders.) The goal, after all, is to take some things that police don’t want to deal with, or aren’t good at dealing with, and allocate funds for a unit that is better at handling those specific situations.

“This is something that law enforcement has been asking for,” Scanlon said. “It’s not fair to dump all of society’s problems on the police or teachers, and mental-health issues are one of the big ones that get dumped in those two buckets when they shouldn’t. It was just particularly insane to have that bill be picked on and characterized as somehow defunding the police when it gave extra money to call centers.”

Later on the same day of the crime, police in Delaware arrested five teenagers, from ages 13 to 19, driving in Scanlon’s Acura. The circumstances of the crime—both the suspects and their weapons—connect to two particular interests of hers: She has sponsored legislation to prevent abuse of underage people in prison, where the suspects in her case may end up if convicted, and, like most elected Democrats, she supports tougher gun laws.

“It was terrifying. I had two kids who clearly should not have guns with guns pointed at me and my staffer, and there’s people all around. Thank God nobody got hurt,” she said.

But even during the encounter itself, her mind went to conversations she’s had with law-enforcement officials about kit guns, firearms that can be assembled from parts and can’t be traced because they have no serial number. “I’m looking at this 19-year-old who has a gun pointed at my chest, and I’m looking at the gun, speculating in the back of my mind that’s not completely going terror, That looks like a kit gun. It looks plasticky. It looks like I could assemble it.”

Scanlon told me she was frustrated about how quickly the discussion around her carjacking became polarized along partisan lines, especially because she believes there are serious crime problems in the United States today, including a rise in carjackings and the availability of guns, and those problems require a thoughtful, depoliticized conversation. But as for Lehman’s hope that the incident will change her way of thinking about crime policy, he’s out of luck.

“I’m afraid it really doesn’t,” she said. “I don’t know that there’s been a big change in my views. I have always supported community policing and good law enforcement, and I will continue to do so.”