Family says officer-involved shooting last week in Lawrence County could have been prevented by better mental health care

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LAWRENCE COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) - After a police-involved shooting last week in Lawrence County that led to Shane Watkins' death, his sister Yvonne Mote says it could have been prevented.

She explained Shane hadn't "been in his right mind" that week because he suffered from mental illness.

"Before he got his illness... he was a happy, caring person," she said as she remembered him. "He was never violent. He's never been a violent person, ever."

She claims he did not charge police with the box-cutter as deputies suggested. The State Bureau of Investigations is looking into the shooting.

Mote explained the family had been going through a tough time with Shane's mental status the week of his death, because his illness had caused him to stop taking vital medication. He needed that medication to regulate him, she said, and without it he was not himself.

She said family members took him to the Mental Health Center of North-Central Alabama on Tuesday of last week, but they couldn't get an appointment until the following Friday. Mote says it's because the health care facility would have had to create a new case for him and start his care from scratch. So they got on the list there, and she says family then took Shane to Decatur Morgan Hospital to see if he could be admitted at a different facility until then.

"[They explained] he's not doing well, he's like out of touch with reality," she said. "He needs help. And they said, 'Well, we don't have a bed available.'"

Shane died the day before his appointment.

But the mental health system is the problem, Mote said.

"We're so frustrated. You call and you try to get something prevented and they're like, well, we can't do [anything]," she expressed.

Mote is concerned others may face similar predicaments with their family members, as mental health centers across North Alabama close. She's now calling for law enforcement, mental health professionals, and others to do better.

"We need to learn more [about] how to deal with... mentally ill people, instead of going in with full force," she said.

The family has begun a Go-Fund-Me page for Shane's burial and related expenses.

"My brother didn't have a life insurance or burial policy," said Mote, "and my mom and he were on disability so they're on a limited income. For this to happen, and all the expenses and everything, is really high... you're out a lot of money when you're not expecting it."

We spoke with Mental Health Officer and North Alabama Court Consultants, LLC owner Jerry Wilhoite, who works as a liaison between law enforcement and the local probate's office. He said communication and further training can help officers when a patient becomes a danger to themselves or others, and he also urges families to be proactive.

Wilhoite works with several North Alabama counties to better facilitate rapid care when it's needed, including involuntary commitment.

"As the resources are... limited," he said of closing mental health care facilities in North Alabama, "the possibility of [police] coming into contact with a person with mental illness is higher."