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Sheriff: Deputy in beach brawl video did his job

 
Published March 12, 2015

ST. PETE BEACH — It was a sunny afternoon when a group of beachgoers flagged down Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Bryan Bingham about a fight involving roughly 20 people on Sunday.

He headed in the direction of the brawl and approached Joshua McMahan, one of the men deputies say was involved in the scuffle.

"I couldn't control him right away. He was in an excited state," Bingham said. "When I tried to pull him away, he turned around and he swung and he hit me."

Bingham recounted in a news conference Wednesday the moments leading up to the violent encounter that was captured on video and viewed millions of times online. Despite the dramatic nature of the footage, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the sergeant was just doing his job.

The video shows Bingham grabbing McMahan, 25, by the neck. Bingham, who was working an off-duty job that day, explained that he was using a "pressure point technique" on McMahan's jaw line to get him under control.

Bingham, who tracks down violent offenders in his normal duties, said he placed him on the ground only after McMahan spit in his face.

Video also shows another man who was involved in the fight, Justin Lewis, 25, who approached Bingham. The sergeant shoved Lewis away and later grabbed him by the neck and pinned him to the ground after he said Lewis tried to push him off of McMahan.

Bingham said he called for help on his radio and within two minutes and 20 seconds, other deputies arrived and arrested McMahan and Lewis on charges of battery on an officer and disorderly conduct.

Gualtieri said both men have lengthy criminal records in Florida. McMahan and Lewis were also released from state prison last year after serving time for armed robbery and aggravated battery, respectively, records state.

"These are just a couple of thugs who happen to be on the beach. This isn't about spring break," Gualtieri said, adding that Bingham used force within policy guidelines and will not be investigated. "When you got a big crowd and you got somebody who is fighting, you've got to take action, and that's what Sgt. Bingham did."

McMahan and Lewis, both from St. Petersburg, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.