CLINTON — Clinton County Sheriff Rick Lincoln remembers when he realized his dream to be a farmer had come to a screeching halt — before it had even started.
It was in the early 1980s when the financial world was beginning to come to grips with a raging farm crisis that seemed to be worsening by the day.
While looking into the possibility of obtaining financing for some farmland, his accountant and a banker offered him some advice.
“They said, ‘You’re still young. Why don’t you go and try something else?’” Lincoln recalled. “All of the sudden, for reasons beyond your control, even though both sets of your grandparents did it and your parents did it, you can’t.”
He had little choice but to shift gears. He needed a steady income because he was planning to get married and start a family.
“I was very fortunate that I got hired as a deputy sheriff when I did,” Lincoln said. “I remember shortly after I became a deputy, we had a suicide: A young man who was about my age who was not going to be able to farm anymore.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why wasn’t this guy resilient enough to do something else, like I did?’ he continued. “But you know, farming is more than an occupation; it’s a lifestyle and an identity.”
That’s long enough
He remains an “old farm boy at heart” who still relishes chances for a little “combine therapy,” thanks to a friend who extends a standing invitation to Lincoln to run big machinery in his fields. He thinks he might do a bit more “combine therapy” when he takes off his shield — for good.
He said he knows when that will be: January 2021, when his current term ends, as he will not seek re-election. He will step down after 20 years as sheriff and 16 years as a deputy sheriff before that.
“It's been a tremendous ride and it’s been a great educational experience, but it's time to let somebody else do it,” Lincoln said. “My wife didn't even want me to run for that last election, but I thought it would have been pretty disingenuous for me to get out before getting the jail up and running and getting all the kinks out.
“There were some tremendous challenges during the past 34½ years, but we were able to get things done,” he continued. “It's been a lot of work, but I can walk away with a sense of pride.”
Wearing a lot of hats
There is a whole lot more to being sheriff than meets the eye. He said people often don’t make a distinction between a police officer and a deputy.
“They don't understand that we run the jail,” Lincoln said. “They don't understand that we do civil process. They don't understand that we transport people on mental and substance-abuse pickup orders. They don't understand we take people to prison. They don't understand we guard the courthouse administration building.”
He said running a jail never has been much of a picnic, but nowadays it’s a little bit like running a hospital, mental health clinic and a church — all at the same time.
“You are holding somebody against their will, but you have to meet all of their rights, and rightfully so, because most of the inmates have not been convicted of anything,” Lincoln said. “You’ve got all these people with medical problems, and we have to treat them. We hardly see anyone anymore who doesn’t have mental health issues, and we have to keep track of their meds. People also tend to become very religious when they come to jail.”
Learn how to talk to people
Police can outnumber any number of criminals in a very short time, and multiple cars can be called upon to arrive simultaneously at any location. By contrast, a deputy’s backup might be one other deputy a half hour away.
It’s a whole different ballgame.
“You learn how to talk to people; you would not go at them — one against however many — with guns blazing,” Lincoln said. “We learn to appreciate the types of people that we're going to deal with. You know, treat them like a human being. They just want to be respected. I think that's the bottom line.”
Mental health care is something at the forefront of Lincoln’s concerns. There are people close to him who require mental health treatment, and there was another who committed suicide.
“We go to many, many more suicides per year than we ever go to a homicide,” he said.
He frets about so many people with problems who are not being treated. One of the reasons is a lack of psychiatric resources, a problem that is cropping up around the country, but there is a particularly acute shortage in Iowa. Lincoln has concerns about the new statewide system that links each county with a handful of others to share pooled resources.
“How much of substance abuse is just self-medicating for a mental-health disorder,” he said. “We can’t think of it as mental health; we need to think of a chemical imbalance as ‘brain cancer’ or something.”
He sees hope from programs such as Stepping Up that have tried to fill the gaps. Stepping Up strives to help counties divert people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system and into the mental health system.
“They are helping us with CIT — crisis-intervention training — which often is what deputies are dealing with when they arrive on a scene,” Lincoln said. “But again, what happens is we do all the right things, then we still fail because we don't have the resources, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who can come in and do that type of work.”
Running toward trouble
Lincoln almost didn’t live long enough to run for sheriff. He recalled one particular incident among his most scary run-ins as a young deputy. He was driving like a bat out of hell to a bar in Calamus while responding to a call of shots fired.
“They said I launched my squad car … and landed a few feet from the bar,” he chuckled. “The call said there was a person with guns holding (patrons) down. So I jumped on my squad car to get a view.
“But she wasn’t in the bar; she was right next to me,” Lincoln continued. “I jumped down to the ground and was crawling to the trunk of the car. That’s where we had to keep the shotguns back then. And all I could think was, ‘This sucks.’”
The incident ended peacefully, and he added: “My shift was over after that, but do you think I went home and slept after that?”
So, it’s not all that easy to control one’s adrenaline at all times. People have bad days, even deputy sheriffs.
But there is one difference between someone who is cut out for law enforcement and someone who is not.
“While everybody else is running away from trouble, we're not only going toward the trouble, but we also have the lights and sirens going to announce our presence,” he added. “And when we get there, we have to take care of business.”