US Police Ship Tactical Gear to Ukraine Amid Russian War

Police stand guard near the Colorado State Capitol during a protest in November 2020 in Denver, Colorado;  used here as stock photo.

Police stand guard near the Colorado State Capitol during a protest in November 2020 in Denver, Colorado; used here as stock photo.
Photo: Michael Ciaglo (Getty Images)

The US military has long dumped troves of its leftover equipment into the eager hands of federal, state, and local police agencies—one of the many factors enabling the alarmingly high levels of police militarization throughout the country. Now departments are so flush with gear that they’re shipping it to an actual warzone as Ukraine battles Russia’s invasion, per a report by Vice.

On Wednesday, state police agencies in Colorado and Vermont announced donations of defensive equipment to Ukrainians facing down Russian forces currently ravaging their way through the country, Vice reported.

“It came out of empathy,” Patricia Billinger, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, 9 news. “Of imagining particularly the men of serving age in Ukraine who are just regular citizens and who are mandated to stay and fight.”

Vermont Governor Phil Scott announced “used and expired” vests of body armor would be sent, and the Vermont State Police encouraged civilian donations of high-grade Level III or above body armor, a type that provides some degree of protection against less powerful types of rifle-caliber rounds. Colorado’s state Department of Public Safety is donating 80 sets of body armor and 750 ballistic helmets, while Pennsylvania’s Falls Township Police Department is sending 52 vests, including 15 higher-grade ones more useful for military applications, according to Vice. Falls Township police are also sending battle dress uniforms, which are designed for use in combat, as well as various other pieces of equipment like boots and medical kits.

The city of Yonkers, New York, is also donating dozens of Level II ballistic vests and riot-control helmets, a spokesperson for Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano told Vice, which wrote the vests were no longer being used by police.

“We took 45 vests from the back” of Township Falls police evidence storage, department chief Nelson E. Whitney II told Vice. “I looked through my basement, and I found a couple I had from over the years, and other officers did the same.” Whitney added the donations are being coordinated through the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in nearby Jenkintown, which is routing the supplies to Ukraine via Poland. In the case of the Yonkers police donations, the Westchester County branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America is moving the equipment.

Much of this equipment is reportedly used, outdated, or no longer covered by warranty. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is subpar— body armor degrades from exposure to the elements like any other product, but its longevity relies on how heavily it has been used and how it has been stored—but does speak to the glut of gear available to US police after 25 years of Pentagon transfers. Gear that police obtain from military sources is itself usually in excess or obsolete for military applicationsand transferred through the Defense Logistics Agency and its 1033 program.

While the 1033 program was scaled back during Barack Obama’s administration, Donald Trump reversed restrictions on what gear police could receive in 2017, clearing them to once again gain access to weaponized aircraft, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and other heavy gear. Joe Biden’s administration has not re-forced restrictions on such transfers.

Occasionally, police departments have donated equipment like vests to US troops before deployment, but the transfers to Ukraine are very unusual, Vice reported. Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told Vice: “Honest to God I have no idea how often this is done or who does it.”

While Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman tweeted earlier this month that he would be sending 340 expired ballistic helmets to Ukraine via a Department of Defense contractor, claiming the Pentagon had requested such donations from civilian police agencies, Vice reported both the State Department and Pentagon denied any such program existed. Global Ordnance, the contractor in question, appears to have in fact been soliciting the donations of its own volition. Its vice president for human resources Carrie Morales told Vice the company was carrying out “humanitarian efforts.”

“We are aware of no such requests from the Department of Defense,” a Pentagon spokesperson said, while one for the State Department said it had “made no such request.” A Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office official clarified to Vice the request was “verbal” and made through a “third-party vendor that has been vetted by DOD.”

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