Ensley Police Precinct

Constructed on the site of Ensley’s old post office, the two-story, ultra-modern Ensley Precinct Station and Ensley Division of Birmingham’s Recorder Court was completed in 1968 for roughly $300,000. It was designed by the architectural firm of TurnerBatson with J. F. Holley Construction Company serving as general contractors. The city of Birmingham approved a bond in 1963 which provided the capital funds to build the new police station that included a roll call room with one glass wall opening onto the service department, an office for the commanding lieutenant, detention cells, judge’s chambers, and conference rooms finished in walnut and marble.

A total of 71 men consisting of a lieutenant, four sergeants and a relief sergeant were assigned to the precinct. Also, 15 vehicles, including patrol cars and three-wheel motors work out of the precinct. Three additional motorcycles and men patrol the West Precinct but are assigned from the Central Precinct. The courtroom was presided by Judge Joe Jasper, in sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays of each week. The court tried 15 cases per day.

Automobile thefts were at an all-time high across Birmingham during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. A task force that included seven officers from the West Precinct (who called themselves the “Magnificent Seven”), two Jefferson County Sheriffs, along with an officer from the Tuscaloosa Police Department organized a sting operation to attract house and business burglars, but when people started bringing in stolen cars, the officers decided to buy them too. The first of its kind in Birmingham, the sting operation was headed by Birmingham narcotics Sgt. Chuck Jordan. The operation was kept top secret, even from others within the department.

Known as Operation “Western Sizzler”, undercover agents rented a building at 1509 Third Avenue West in West End and disguised it as a pawn shop named Johnny’s Thrift Shop. After opening, police put the word out on the street that they were buying stolen merchandise. Officers wanted a fresh face that locals would not recognize so they asked 34-year-old Tuscaloosa undercover narcotics agent Johnny Samaniego to act as pawn shop owner “Johnny Rubio.” He engaged the thieves in conversation to obtain their names, addresses, and details of the thefts while closed-circuit cameras and microphones recorded everything. The agents had to turn away some merchandise because they could not identify it as being stolen. As the agents bought more and more cars, the logistics of the operation became as difficult as dealing with the customers. In the beginning, agents arranged to store the stolen cars at the Anniston Army Depot, which could hold 15 cars. Little did they know that the undercover operation would soon land nearly 10 times as many.

Johnny's Thrift Shop
Police traded the words “We Buy and Sell Used Merchandise” for “We Buy Hot Merchandise”, 1986 Birmingham Post Herald

Once the Depot filled up, officers decided to use a warehouse on Highway 79 in Pinson that could hold as many as 50 cars. When that filled up, they stored cars in the fenced-in farm of Birmingham narcotics Sgt. Cam Guy near the Walker County line. All of the detectives carried a screwdriver so they could start up the keyless cars and move them again. On one trip to the warehouse, the detectives discovered a foul smell emitting from one of the trunks of the cars. Fearing a body was inside, they punched the trunk lock to discover a body of dead turkey and a trunk full of rotten groceries, likely stolen months prior around Thanksgiving.

In a span of six months, from September 1985 until February 1986, the pawn shop spent about $40,000 to purchase stolen property worth $1.2 million. A majority of the money was used to purchase stolen automobiles. Most of the cars were bought for $300 or $400, but a 1982 Pontiac Grand Prix was purchased for $50 and another car for only $20. Most of the money came from the Birmingham Police Department budget, but $20,000 was contributed by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Rent and expenses added another $25,000 to the cost of the sting operation. Detectives had purchased 113 cars, more than 50 credit cards, 4 motorcycles, 14 handguns, 12 televisions, band instruments from Ensley High School, and audio-visual equipment from Glenn High School. Two computers, each valued at $1,500, were purchased for $75 each. Twenty pairs of women’s shoes were bought for $35. On the store’s last day of operating, a man from Atlanta came in the pawn shop and sold a stolen car, surprising detectives on how far their scheme had reached. They identified 65 suspects and arrested 37 adults and 13 juveniles on charges of theft and receiving stolen property.

Today, more than 130 patrol officers are stationed at Birmingham’s West Precinct, which now covers 65 square miles and more than 80,000 residents living in 39 of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods. In late 2011, construction of a new West Precinct at Five Points West was approved, and a groundbreaking ceremony took place on January 25, 2012. The $2 million West Precinct building was dedicated in 2015 in honor of former Deputy Chief Leroy Stover. The old Ensley Police Precinct remains vacant.

Police Station
The old police precinct was also used as a McGruff Place – a safety zone where children can get immediate help. The building was the only non-residence in Alabama to receive this designation from the National McGruff House Network.
Police Station
The two-story brick and stone-clad building was once apart of the vibrant historic Ensley Business District.
Police Station
The first-floor entry into the police headquarters
Police Precinct
47947035252_22c1cc9248_k (1)
The antiquated headquarters closed a decade ago after a new $2 million police station was built a short distance away.
Police Station
The male locker room inside the old precinct.
Police Precinct
Police Station
One issue that plagued the police station was that it was not ADA-compliant since there is no elevator to the second floor.
Police Headquarters
The second-floor municipal courtroom hosted civic events after the precinct closed.
Police Precinct
Police Precinct
Police Precinct
Police Precinct
Police Precinct

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For more abandoned places from across the city, check out Abandoned Birmingham. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.

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