US police agencies are sending protective gear to Ukrainian civilians in what experts call an unprecedented move

A Ukrainian civil defender holding a vest that was provided by the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council after one of the shipments of donations arrived in Ukraine.

(CNN)The governors of Iowa and Nebraska announced last week interagency initiatives to donate police protective gear, including military-grade equipment such as helmets and vests, to Ukraine to help civilians defend themselves against Russia's invasion.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said his state will send 550 pieces of protective gear and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said her state's department of public safety and 18 law enforcement agencies will provide Ukraine with 860 pieces of gear.
    The agencies join a growing list of police departments -- from California to Ohio to Vermont -- that are donating non-lethal police gear to aid Ukrainian civilians, according to a CNN review of state-by-state efforts and interviews with some of those involved.
      Among the agencies contacted by CNN, and the non-government groups gathering supplies, none have said they're collecting weapons or ammunition.
        Many of the police departments involved in these efforts are working with charity organizations and former members of the US military. Some sources with direct knowledge of the varied efforts -- but who are not involved -- spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about potential legal questions the effort could raise.
        It's unprecedented, experts say, for US law enforcement agencies to donate police protective equipment and military-grade gear to a foreign country involved in an ongoing war. The effort also raises questions about the roles of police departments and whether, as domestic law enforcement agencies, they should send equipment to a foreign conflict outside of their jurisdiction.
          Because there's no central coordinating group, there's not an easy way to say what's being shipped or whether it's subject to export regulations.
          Donated protective vests after they arrived in Ukraine for distribution around the country.
          The Ukrainian American Coordinating Council (UACC), a non-profit organization, is at the center of one effort to send regulated, military-grade and police protective items to Ukraine, including ballistic helmets, hard plates, soft armor inserts and vests, the group says. 
          When Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, the UACC moved quickly to obtain a license from the Department of Commerce to export level III ballistic vests and helmets, as well as a special authorization from the State Department for level IV vests in a limited capacity, according to the organization.
          Level III armor is the first level of body armor that provides protection against rifle rounds and level IV is rated by the National Institute of Justice as the highest level of ballistic protection.
          In accordance with the UACC's export license, the equipment can only be provided to Ukrainian civilians who have joined territorial defense units to defend their country against Russian troops, according to Mick Safron, an executive member of the board of UACC.
          The UACC is partnering with the Ukrainian charitable organization called Come Back Alive, which helps store and distribute the equipment from Lviv warehouses to territorial defenses and "hotspots" across the country, according to the UACC. The foundation has end-user certificates for every territorial defense unit that receives vest and helmet donations, according to Safron.
          The UACC acknowledges where Come Back Alive is distributing the donations. However, once the shipments arrive in the country, the UACC does not have control over whether the gear is distributed to the Ukrainian army or police forces, Safron said.
          The US Department of Commerce and State Department did not confirm the UACC's claims regarding its export license and special authorization, but the State Department tells CNN that groups seeking to donate military-grade gear and other equipment may be subject to export regulations.
          A spokesperson for the Department of Commerce told CNN in a statement that it does not "comment on specific license applications or parties, including whether a party has filed a license application."
          The department "has been processing requests for exports to authorized end-users in Ukraine rapidly," according to the statement, which includes applications for licenses to export firearms and ammunition under its "existing processes and authorities."
          In an interview with CNN, retired US Army Maj. Gen. Mike Repass -- the former commander of the US Special Operations Command in Europe -- said level IV body armor is "capable of withstanding one or two shots from a Soviet-type round" and the technology is controlled by the State Department for US export.
          "However, the provision of Level IV body armor is subject to a lengthy process to get US approval for delivery to Ukraine. It is late-to-need as a result," Repass added.
          Some of the gear being donated by law enforcement departments, including certain types of protective vests, do not qualify as military-grade, meaning they can be sent to Ukraine without approval from the federal government, according to US Army veteran Alex Plitsas, who has been working with several police departments across Connecticut to ship the equipment to Ukraine. A typical vest worn by a police officer, rated to stop most handgun rounds, would not qualify as military-grade.
          The State Department is advising groups involved in the donations to consult with the Ukrainian government, "to confirm the items will meet an immediate requirement," a department spokesperson told CNN. "After that, items must first be assessed to determine how they are controlled for purposes of export ... prospective donors must follow necessary export licensing rules before sending."
          Organizers and police departments involved in this effort tell CNN that their work is legal, and the equipment being donated is reviewed to ensure it meets federal export regulations. But it remains unclear whether federal agencies are fully aware of every item that is being shipped to Ukraine as the US government largely puts the onus on donors to ensure they are following the law. 
          CNN spoke with several experts about the legality of various efforts to aid Ukraine by sending protective gear and raised the central question of whether the federal government should be authorizing local police departments to intervene in international affairs.