COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — An advisory committee recommended tweaks to some state Amber Alert issuance processes Thursday based on identified weaknesses in a high-profile December abduction case.
The quarterly Ohio Amber Alert Advisory Committee meeting Thursday morning shed light on the abduction of two 5-month-old Columbus twins in December — and the hours-long process behind putting out emergency notifications when children are taken from their parents.
Nalah Jackson allegedly abducted Ky’air and Kason Thomas during the evening of Dec. 19 in their mother’s black Honda Accord outside Donatos Pizza on High Street. The children’s mother Wilhelmina Barnett was inside, picking up an order to deliver, when her children and car were stolen.
Issuing Amber Alerts comes with stringent criteria.
A small percentage are issued within the first hour of a child or children going missing, and the bulk fall within the three to six hour range, according to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children data.
But Capt. Ron Raines — an Ohio State Highway Patrol watch desk commander — said an “organizational lack of continuity and messaging” delayed the December alert’s activation. The Amber Alert eventually pinged Ohioans’ phones in the early hours of Dec. 20, around four hours after the children were first abducted.
Ky’air was found that same morning, abandoned in a parking lot 70 miles away at the Dayton International Airport. Jackson crossed state lines with Kason before either were found.
Recommendations come from December incident
Raines said that inconsistent messaging from the Columbus Division of Police slowed the process, although his presentation largely centered on action taken later by watch desk commanders he oversees.
An “AA” code, for Amber Alert, was not included in the Columbus police data sent to the National Crime Information Center.
Although it is not a necessity to issue an Amber Alert, he said the lack of an AA code confused the on-duty watch desk commander on whether to issue an Amber Alert or an Endangered Missing Child Alert.
After talking with Columbus police, the watch desk commander also called both the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations before it was determined — around 12:15 a.m. — the situation warranted an Amber Alert.
That code was not entered until 5:00 a.m., hours after the alert had already gone out.
An additional slowdown of at least 20 minutes came when the watch desk commander submitted wording for the alert to the the national agency that was too lengthy and via an email rather than through the correct form, Raines said.
Raines said much of the rest of the process progressed smoothly after 1 a.m.
He recommended both more proactive regional training for Amber Alert situations going forward, and also requiring that watch commanders check in with their managers for immediate clarity on whether an alert should be issued — even if it’s an instance that seems clear cut.
Beyond Ohio’s borders, Amber Alert criteria varies
State-to-state issuances came into question the night of Dec. 20, close to 24 hours after the Thomas twins were abducted. Kason was still missing, and Jackson was still at large.
Federal Bureau of Investigations Agent Kristin Beggs said Thursday she made phone calls to bordering states, asking about possible Amber Alerts. Each jurisdiction has its own issuance criteria, and Beggs said not one had a “nexus that the child was in their state.”
Two days later in the afternoon of Dec. 22, law enforcement took Jackson into custody near Indianapolis, without Kason or the Black Honda Accord at the center of the Ohio alert. Beggs said she “immediately” called state agencies.
But Indiana criteria for an Amber Alert mandate that the abductee still be at-large, Raines said, and Jackson was not.