LOS ANGELES — As police probe whether one of their own leaked a picture of a bruised and beaten woman that appears to be Rihanna, the image is sparking a discussion of the impact it could have on the issue of domestic violence. The celebrity Web site TMZ, which posted the photo Thursday night, did not explain its origin. The site wrote only that it was taken after an altercation between platinum-selling singer and her boyfriend, fellow pop star Chris Brown.
Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton acknowledged Friday afternoon that the photo could prove embarrassing to the woman pictured, a view shared by some advocates for abused women. But in the welts and marks on the face of the woman in the photo, some also saw a teaching moment.
"If it could happen to Rihanna, it could happen to anyone," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. There are an estimated 4.8 million domestic violence attacks on women and another 2.9 million attacks on men each year, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
"Maybe it is a good idea if it's her, if young girls see this," said Susan Murphy-Milano, a Chicago author and advocate for battered women. She said she hopes it makes them think, "Is the next picture going to be of her in a morgue?"
Both women expected the image, which even Bratton wouldn't go so far as to confirm was Rihanna, could spark a new awareness about domestic violence.
"The reality that domestic violence can happen to anyone, even someone with fame and celebrity, ought to bring home the point that this is a problem for our entire society," Gandy said. "We can't avoid or ignore it."
Bratton told reporters that along with launching an internal investigation into whether the photo is police evidence, he is also looking into how TMZ obtained the picture. He said the department may pursue a felony conspiracy case against TMZ and whomever might have helped them get the image.
Bratton said he suspected someone within the department leaked the photo, but did not elaborate or go so far as to confirm that it came from police evidence files.
"We are not treating this lightly," Bratton said. "It's an embarrassment to this department if in fact evidence was leaked.
"It's going to be a very painful experience for any personnel from this department and possibly those who they may have engaged in a conspiracy with to violate the laws of California."
TMZ did not say how it obtained the image and a publicist for the site did not return a phone or e-mail message seeking comment Friday.
Brown, 19, was arrested Feb. 8 on suspicion of making felony criminal threats, but police have not publicly identified his alleged victim. The woman was Rihanna, according to a person familiar with the situation, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity.
A spokesman for Brown said the singer had no further comment beyond a statement released Sunday in which he said he was "sorry and saddened" about the incident. His attorney has not returned calls seeking comment.
Rihanna broke her silence on Friday, her 21st birthday, by releasing a statement through Rubenstein Associates.
"At the request of the authorities, Rihanna is not commenting about the incident involving Chris Brown," the statement read. "She wants to assure her fans that she remains strong, is doing well, and deeply appreciates the outpouring of support she has received during this difficult time."
The singer canceled a planned birthday bash in New York and postponed concerts overseas in the days following the incident.
Prosecutors are still waiting for police to present more evidence against Brown. Bratton said Friday that detectives are working quickly to finish that investigation, and the inquiries into the leak.
Both Gandy and Murphy-Milano said one of the reasons the photo's release is so shocking is because domestic violence isn't in the spotlight except for when it involves high-profile couples.
"Such a graphic image may give people pause and make them think about what we're doing for the women who don't have resources to escape and take care of themselves," Gandy said. She said the country's economic problems will translate into more domestic violence cases as families suffer financial strain.
And from a painful image, Murphy-Milano hoped a new advocate for battered women might have been made.
"I think she could be a very important voice and a tool for other people," she said of Rihanna. "She could turn this around," Murphy-Milano said, and tell others, "'Don't be me.'"
AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody contributed to this report.
On the Net: