Servicemen of the 126th Separate Territorial Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine take part in military exercises in Odessa region on June 22, 2022.
Servicemen of the 126th Separate Territorial Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine take part in military exercises in Odessa region on June 22, 2022. (Photo by OLEKSANDR GIMANOV / AFP via Getty Images)

California Sent a Ton of Shitty Cop Gear to Ukraine With ‘No Guarantee’ How It’d Be Used

“The ballistic helmets and vests can be of any level, and they will even take equipment that has expired[.] That’s how desperate they are….”

The state of California collected a thousand police vests and hundreds of ballistic helmets from California law enforcement agencies at the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia war to donate to Ukraine—with no real idea where the equipment would go or how it would be used, according to emails obtained by VICE News.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, dozens of police agencies around the country began sending surplus, often expired equipment to Ukraine, intending for the gear to be used by either Ukrainian civilians or people taking up arms to defend the country. California’s state government, led by the Cabinet-level Office of Emergency Services (OES) and the California National Guard, solicited donations from local law enforcement, in what was perhaps the largest coordinated effort to bring surplus U.S. police gear to Ukraine. 

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The emails about the effort, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, show that the early days of the unprecedented operation were surrounded by chaos, with hundreds of pieces of equipment, a lot expired, donated before the state could say for sure who the equipment was going to or how it would even get there. 

The order to provide help came from Gov. Gavin Newsom after he met with Dmytro Kushneruk, who serves as the Ukrainian Consul General in San Francisco. Kushneruk told VICE News that he asked Newsom to coordinate donations, and said that other consulates throughout the world were making similar requests at the time.

“During a conversation with Governor Newsom and the Ukrainian Consulate last week, the subject of ballistic helmets, vests, and other protective equipment (i.e. gloves, googles, etc.) came up. It appears that the Ukrainian government is in desperate need of this type of equipment,” Donald O’Keefe, the OES Chief of Law Enforcement, wrote in a March 5 email to several top OES officials.

“The ballistic helmets and vests can be of any level, and they will even take equipment that has expired[.] That’s how desperate they are….,” O’Keefe wrote. (Newsom said he donated his own bulletproof vest during a March 15 event where he helped pack emergency relief supplies for Ukraine, NBC Bay Area reported at the time.)

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Two days later, Steve Schory, the OES’ Assistant Chief for Law Enforcement, sent a memo to all California sheriffs, police chiefs, and other law enforcement executives saying the Ukrainian Consulate had requested ballistic helmets, ballistic vests, and “other tactical safety equipment such as goggles, gloves, etc.” 

“The intent of the Ukrainian government is to provide this equipment to individuals simply as an additional layer of safety," Schory wrote. “The equipment to be donated [sic] and it can be beyond its printed expiration date. The Ukrainian government is aware that this equipment will be beyond its expiration date.” The equipment would be stored at Cal National Guard armories throughout the state, the emails said. 

For some, the request was confusing. “Typically State Government agencies cannot provide military equipment to foreign governments is my understanding,” one employee at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wrote in an email to Schory. “Is there an executive order or some kind of authorization?”

Still, more than a dozen police agencies responded to the call over the next few days, according to the emails. The Redding Police Department, in Northern California, said that it had “50 Ballistic Vests” and “25 Ballistic Helmets (Military Frag).” A senior investigator from the Fresno County District Attorney’s office offered 40 vests and eight helmets. A representative for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff offered up 25 expired ballistic vests and 11 “unusable expired vests that we intended to destroy”; OES declined the unusable vests but took the others. 

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There were few details, however, about how the equipment would actually be used. On March 9, a deputy at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office asked a series of questions, including: “Does the equipment donated go directly to the Ukrainian fighters?”

“The plan is to have the equipment distributed to Ukrainian fighters and/or refugees,” Schory responded. “However, once the equipment is shipped, we have no guarantee on how it will be utilized.” To another question about how long it would take for the donations to “get in the hands of the Ukrainian fighters,” Schory said: “That is unknown at this time.”

The emails show that the people charged with coordinating the donations were confused as well. 

“[D]onated / excess [law enforcement] gear will be transported to [California Military Department] warehouse locations at our facilities,” one March 9 email from Cal National Guard Assistant Adjutant General Matthew Beevers says. “From there, and in coordination with the United States European Command (who has the national lead), we will consolidate and ship [law enforcement] gear to our Federal partners through the United States Transportation Command and Civilian [non governmental organization] partners who will in turn move LE gear to [Ukraine] distribution points in both NATO and [Ukraine] locations for final distribution.”

Less than five hours later, Beevers emailed again. “The National Guard Bureau just advised us that the concept of operation I relayed to you this morning is no longer valid,” he said. 

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“The US European Command is apparently sourcing similar LE-type gear from Europe which is obviously faster and cheaper,” Beevers said. “We recognize the DRI restriction on nonhumanitarian items. That said, we are working on alternative methods to move the LE gear we expect to receive. Will keep you informed.”

Twenty law enforcement agencies had pledged a total of 1,000 ballistic vests, 450 ballistic helmets, and 50 tactical goggles as of March 11, the emails showed. By May 5, the California National Guard had sent 4,320 ballistic vests and 1,580 ballistic helmets to Ukraine, as well as medical aid, according to a press release from Newsom’s office. (The National Guard was not able to provide VICE News with updated metrics by publication.) 

“The Guard requested donations of tactical gear from State National Guards throughout the nation and they responded with enthusiasm,” California National Guard Adjutant General David Baldwin said in a statement at the time. “Thanks to donations from California and from other National Guard members throughout the country, we are able to supply those fighting in Ukraine with thousands of ballistic vests and other protective supplies.” 

The usefulness of at least some of the equipment solicited is still an open question, however. One Ukrainian front-line soldier who spoke to VICE News about the need for combat vests and plates among his fellow servicemen said his military didn’t need American law enforcement gear, but the type of stuff made for war. 

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“On vests, highest possible level,” said the soldier, whom VICE News will not name out of security concerns that Russian intelligence is gathering the names of Ukrainian soldiers, then putting them on kill lists. “Not simply the police vests.”

The National Institute of Justice sets standards for ballistic plates from level one through four, with three and four being at a military standard capable of withstanding NATO standard caliber bullets and most Kalashnikov rifles. But Kushneruk said that Ukraine sought donations of all vests, not just military-grade, because exporting Level IV vests requires the approval of the State Department

“We were sure that level III-plus was very good, but level III is also better than having nothing at all, and that was the most important priority,” Kushneruk told VICE News Thursday.

Kushneruk also said that while bulletproof vests are still needed, “the scarcity is not as acute as it was in the beginning.”

He said that once the vests got to Ukraine, the military differentiated those that were military-grade from those that weren’t. Those that weren’t were given to Ukrainian police, those doing de-mining, and “military doctors providing help to wounded soldiers,” Kushneruk said. 

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“In Ukraine there’s the frontlines, but there’s also Russian insurgent groups inside the country, our police and special agents have had to fight them,” he said. “Basically, police in the US are providing [gear] for police in Ukraine, because if it’s good enough here it’s good enough for police in Ukraine.” 

Kushneruk said he’s also heard stories of some soldiers using vests that aren’t military grade to cover their legs and other parts of their bodies when they’re coming under artillery fire. “As far as I know, everyone was happy they got [the equipment],” Kushneruk said. 

The Ukrainian soldier who spoke to VICE News was clear that he needed exclusively level three or four plates and spoke of a shortage in individual armor that began as early as March when the war was first beginning. 

“Yes, there is still a lack of body armor and helmets,” he said. “Some Armed Forces units too, but there [it varies] from one to another unit.  In some cases it is not because of lack of supply, but because of disrupted logistics or dumb logistics officers (rare case, but it happens).”

In an email, Cal OES spokesperson Brian Ferguson told VICE News that, “based on needs articulated by the Ukrainian Consulate General,” the Cal National Guard and OES worked to “coordinate donations from state and local law enforcement agencies for excess excess/re-sourced ballistic helmets, vests and gloves, as well as safety goggles to provide to Ukrainian citizens in and around the war zone.”

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“These donations were collected from local government partners across the state and sent overseas by the California Guard on a flow basis over the past three months,” Ferguson said. “These donations were made consistent with prevailing practices in relief efforts.”

There were multiple legal questions involved with some of the donations offered, however. The Mesa (Arizona) Police Department offered 20 expired vests, but the chief’s adjutant at the Mesa Police Department noted in an email to Schory that “there are some challenges with accepted equipment from Arizona.” The chief of the Brea Police Department, in Orange County, offered to donate vests but was turned down because the department’s vests were partially funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant.

Even California state agencies ran into problems. “The largest cache [of equipment] is with [California Highway Patrol] and [Alcoholic Beverage Control], totaling 500 vests and 150 helmets,” O’Keefe said in an email. “Unfortunately, the donation of those is still tied up with legal issues.” (The legal issues are not disclosed in the emails.) 

These donations also weren’t completely random: California’s formal ties to Ukraine go back decades. In 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. National Guard Bureau launched a “State Partnership Program” that paired various state National Guards with former Soviet bloc countries. The National Guard Bureau describes the program as “a key U.S. security cooperation tool, facilitating cooperation across all aspects of international civil-military affairs and encouraging people-to-people ties at the state level.”

Ukraine was paired with the California National Guard, and since then, OES and the California National Guard have “provided training and conducted exercises with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces on utilizing the Emergency Management and Incident Command System,” according to a March 3 press release from Newsom’s office. 

On March 11, O’Keefe wrote in an email to OES Deputy Director Mitchell Medigovich that Baldwin—the Cal National Guard’s highest-ranking official—told O’Keefe in a text message “that he had a donor who is willing to fly the ballistic vests, helmets, etc to Ukraine.” The name of the donor was not disclosed; in a later email, O’Keefe said that OES Director Mark Ghilarducci told him he would “speak to Baldwin over the weekend or on Monday. Doesn’t want me to respond to text.” 

“What a mission…….,” Medigovich responded. “The wheelhouse continues to fill with new and exciting opportunities to excel.”

Ben Makuch contributed additional reporting.