About 400 bulletproof vests destined for Ukraine were stolen from a New York City non-profit organization that’s been leading an effort to collect and ship tactical gear to people in the warzone, police said Wednesday.
Police say the used vests, donated by local law enforcement, were taken from the offices of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America on Second Avenue in Manhattan.
Police responded around 9:15 a.m. to a call of a burglary and “were informed that approximately 400 bulletproof vests were removed from the location,” NYPD Sergeant Edward Riley said. A worker knew something was amiss after showing up Wednesday morning, with the gate open but no visible damage.
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In the span of less than three hours, three different vans pulled up in front of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America building in the East Village, with multiple people in masks hopping out of each of them and casually walking inside. Surveillance video from a deli next door showed them then haul out large brown boxes full of the bulletproof gear, and then driving away.
"People right now in our community, they’re either in church praying, or everyone is feeling disenfranchised. They have no power right now, and then this happens, and that absolutely affects people," said Andrij Dobriansky, a spokesperson for the UCCA.
The vests were meant for medics, humanitarian workers, and others who have joined the fight against the Russian military, not Ukrainian soldiers themselves, officials said.
"Who isn’t being supplied are territorial defenses, the people who are getting humanitarian supplies across. So these kinds of donations — whether they come from Suffolk County, we have a lot of police precincts in New Jersey and upstate New York also donating, these are why it’s important," said Dobriansky.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, support has poured in to nonprofits like the UCCA, with donations like clothing, toys, diapers and more all lining the entryway hallway.
Police departments in the New York City area have donated hundreds of decommissioned bulletproof vests to charities supporting Ukrainian forces fighting Russia’s invasion.
The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office on Long Island said it worked with the UCCA to donate 450 used, decommissioned vests, but could not confirm that the vests that were stolen were the ones it donated.
The sheriff’s office stops using the vests after five years, but officials said they remain sturdy enough to offer protection in warfare.
“It is despicable that someone would break into a building to steal supplies and materials intended to aid those affected by this humanitarian crisis,” said Vicki DiStefano, a spokesperson for Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.
It was not clear if all the vests that were taken were from the Suffolk County donation.
"As far as we can tell, maybe about three-quarters of that supply was taken last night," said Dobriansky, who added that neighbors and elected officials near and far had been checking in throughout the day.
"The fact that New York is not only being generous, but they’re very responsive tonight warms our heart," he said.
Dobriansky said last week that the plan was for donated gear to be shipped by air to Poland and then transported into Ukraine. He said that churches and community centers in the neighborhood and elsewhere are filled with donations that will soon be sent to Ukraine.
Police are searching for the three vans and whoever was in them, and responsible for the theft. An investigation is ongoing.