For Carolyn E. Bick, journalism must be confrontational and challenge the status quo, even if that risks losing access to powerful people and institutions.
“Journalism is — in my opinion — a service position, and what you’re supposed to be doing is actually telling the truth and not ignoring certain things because you’re worried about losing access to things,” Bick said.
Bick, the South Seattle Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, is the 2022 Real Change Editorial Excellence winner. Over the past two years, Bick’s intrepid reporting into policing and Seattle’s police accountability system made serious waves. Bick has garnered a strong reputation and loyal audience for their dogged, detail-oriented writing, covering issues other journalists neglect.
In 2020, Bick dug into the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s investigation into the 2017 killing of Tommy Le by King County Sheriff’s deputies. The county paid Le’s family a $5 million settlement last year.
Bick and the Emerald started Watchdragon in 2021 as a series dedicated to holding Seattle and King County institutions accountable through investigative reporting. Their beat focuses on the ways that the city’s existing police accountability agencies — the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Community Police Commission (CPC) — fail to adequately discipline police officers who cause harm.
In August 2021, Bick broke the story that an OIG auditor resigned, saying that potential ethics violations compromised the OIG’s responsibility to oversee the OPA. Bick later reported that Andrew Myerberg, the head of OPA at the time, was under investigation for his handling of complainants’ confidential information. These revelations exposed deeply troubling dynamics at the heart of Seattle’s police accountability system.
This June, Bick reported that text messages from former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best showed that she had been in contact with Mayor Jenny Durkan about SPD removing items from the East Precinct at a critical time during the 2020 George Floyd protests. The precinct’s evacuation led to the formation of the much-villified Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. Bick’s Watchdragon has also uncovered evidence that the CPC mishandled allegations of sexual assault against Seattle cops.
These groundbreaking stories show that Bick deserves the Editorial Excellence Award. However, Bick didn’t always think they’d go into the journalism field.
Bick said that they first started in journalism almost by accident during college when they were looking for extracurricular activities.
“I very distinctly remember my first article was about an art exhibition, and it was really bad,” Bick said. “But, fortunately, I have improved just a little bit since then.”
Bick began writing for the South Seattle Emerald in 2018, not long after they moved to the Seattle area. Initially a freelance writer, they became the Emerald’s dedicated COVID-19 reporter in 2020 as the pandemic hit. Some of their favorite stories included highlighting the work of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center.
Bick said that, while they could write for other outlets, their love for the Emerald comes on top.
But what has garnered Bick the most attention — becoming one of Seattle’s most ardent police accountability watchdogs — was not in their initial plans.
Bick vividly remembers attending a virtual press conference with then-Mayor Jenny Durkan and Best right after the first George Floyd protests. “And I just remember feeling like this is really important,” they said. “I just remember seeing all across social media, just really very graphic images because of certain responses from the police.”
While writing about police accountability can be really difficult, Bick said that one of the things that motivates them to continue is supporting people who have been failed by existing systems.
“The people who drive me to do this work are the people who have been facing their own uphill battles with regard to police accountability, and especially for those people who have not yet seen — for lack of a better term — justice. Or even sometimes — most of the time — fairness,” they said.
Their work doesn’t come without pushback. Seattle agencies have been reluctant to release timely information to Bick and other journalists. The Seattle Police Department is particularly notorious for its glacial pace: Axios reports that there is now a backlog of 2,800 public disclosure requests at the department, which takes an average of 79 days to close a request.
“It’s mainly the silence and honestly what feels sometimes like lowkey gaslighting from city officials just trying to pretend that there’s nothing there,” Bick said.
Members of the CPC have also questioned the accuracy of Bick’s reporting.
Mayor Bruce Harrell refuses to respond to their requests for comment. Still, they persevere, using the documents that they receive and sources to turn around lengthy, meticulously detailed reports that survive the criticism and stonewalling.
Bick said that another tough aspect of their job is that “most of the rest of the media will just glide right by” the issues with Seattle’s police accountability system. When they get invited onto other media programs, hosts are often really selective about what they want to talk about. For example, they wanted to hear from Bick about their reporting on Best but not on the turmoil within the OPA.
Outside of journalism, Bick loves cultivating their artsy side with photography of the natural environment. They have also experimented with mixed media art, which they said they are super excited about.
“I love nature photography,” Bick said. “It has been my saving grace, so to speak, in this whole pandemic.”
One of the things that keeps Bick going is the gratitude they receive from readers and knowing that they are making a positive impact in the community. Some Twitter users even go as far as commenting that Bick should be recognized with a Pulitzer Prize.
“The reception I’ve gotten from the community and the public has mostly been positive,” they said.
Bick said that knowing that their reporting and documentation efforts could benefit someone is their ultimate motivation, regardless of whether they receive immediate praise for their work.
“But I know that someday, they will help somebody and that is what keeps me going,” Bick said. “That is what is so important to me.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Sept. 14-20, 2022 issue.