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Rihanna photo prompts LAPD probe

The department is investigating whether the image of the battered singer was leaked to TMZ from within. She was allegedly assaulted by her pop star boyfriend Chris Brown.

February 21, 2009|Joel Rubin and Richard Winton

Los Angeles Police Department officials on Friday were interviewing officers and scouring electronic records amid growing suspicion that someone inside the department leaked or sold to a celebrity website a photo of the singer Rihanna that depicted injuries to her face she suffered during an alleged assault by her boyfriend.

Police officials said it appears the photo is part of the LAPD's ongoing investigation of Chris Brown, the pop star who allegedly assaulted the singer in the early morning the day of the Grammy Awards two weeks ago.

"At this stage, it is reasonable to believe this is the type of photo taken in a police department domestic violence investigation," said Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger. "We are obligated to protect the victims of domestic violence. The investigation will determine who had access and who was present that day during the process. We will leave no stone unturned to identify who did this or to refute that this was a photo from the Police Department."

In similar comments Friday, Police Chief William J. Bratton said it would be "an embarrassment to this department" if an employee was responsible for the leak. He said any officer or department employee who is found to have leaked the photo will face discipline, including possible termination.

Despite intense, global interest spurred by breathless coverage in tabloids and entertainment publications, the LAPD has not named Rihanna -- whose real name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty -- as the woman in the attack, citing state laws that protect the identity of assault victims.

The popular, no-holds-barred website TMZ.com, which has established itself as one of the Internet's leading purveyors of all things salacious and celebrity, posted the disturbing photo late Thursday evening. The close-up of the singer's face shows her with bruises and cuts on her forehead, lips and eyes.

Its appearance set off a frenzy of interest as countless media outlets linked readers to the photo and thousands of people posted comments to the TMZ site regarding the photo.

The LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are ever grappling with the challenge of keeping investigations involving celebrities confidential. The problem has grown only worse with the meteoric rise of celebrity gossip websites, which have joined traditional tabloids and paparazzi agencies in the cutthroat industry of airing stars' dirty laundry. TMZ's coming out party came in summer 2006 when it obtained a leaked Sheriff's Department arrest report detailing the abusive, anti-Semitic rants of actor Mel Gibson after he was taken into custody on suspicion of drunk driving. The Sheriff's Department conducted an intensive investigation into the breach, though there has been no conclusion.

That incident prompted lawmakers to pass legislation last year that makes it a misdemeanor for peace officers or law enforcement employees to profit by leaking confidential reports or images. In pushing for the crackdown on for-profit leaks, now dubbed "Mel's Law," Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) and Sheriff Lee Baca argued that information obtained during a criminal investigation could compromise the ability of detectives and prosecutors to make a case against a suspect.

But the push for that law did not stem the flow of sensational tidbits from law enforcement authorities to always-hungry websites and magazines. In 2007, an LAPD officer videotaped rapper The Game inside a holding cell at a South Los Angeles police station. The video ended up on TMZ, but officials said they could not determine whether the officer had been paid for it.

Although a photo showing Rihanna's injuries had been the Holy Grail among the tabloids, one paparazzi veteran estimated its value as being fairly moderate. Frank Griffin, a partner of the Bauer-Griffin photo agency that has sold some of the best-known tabloid images, said the picture was not offered to him and thought the seller would not make more than $25,000. The price, he said, would be limited because, without a legitimate contract from a known photographer, TMZ would not be able to prevent other sites from copying the photo and claiming it as their own.

"A picture of Rihanna kissing a new boyfriend is going to be worth a lot more," he said.

A TMZ spokeswoman declined to comment on how the photo was obtained, other than to say it was acquired legally.

Police officials on Friday refused to discuss details of their investigation.

The handling and access to photos of abused women has been a issue recently in the department.

For years, officers typically attached photos from domestic violence cases to the hard-copy reports they wrote during their investigations.

With the advent of digital technology, however, patrol officers now commonly carry department-issued cameras and use them to take images at the scene of alleged abuse cases. Those photos are downloaded to a central computer server in the department, so they can be retrieved later by detectives assigned to a case, according to an LAPD detective supervisor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the case.

If the photo was leaked, the effect will depend on whether it came from one of the officers directly linked to the case, said defense attorney Dmitry Gorin, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney.

"If I had a police officer involved [in the leak] then I would attack their credibility," Gorin said.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.

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