In the photo, the singer's lips appear swollen, she has welts on her forehead and brusises on her her eyes, nose and cheeks. Rihanna, who turns 21 today, was also bitten on the arm, according to TMZ.
The photo could determine whether criminal charges will be brought against Brown, 19, and the severity of those charges.
"If there's just swelling then Chris Brown may get away with simply being charged as a misdemeanor. If that picture does in fact depict broken bones, facial fractures, contusions, then he's looking at a felony and probable jail time," said ABC News legal analyst Dana Cole.
Brown, an R&B superstar, was arrested Feb. 8 and booked on suspicion of making felonious criminal threats to a woman whom authorities have not publicly identified
The publication of the photo has created another controversy. The Los Angeles Police Department launched an internal investigation and asked for the public's help in finding the person who leaked it, according to The Associated Press.
A police news release said the image "has the appearance" of one taken during a domestic violence investigation, and classified its release as a case of serious misconduct that could result in termination.
African-American Celebrities React
The image of the battered songstress is likely to confirm had feelings among former Brown fans who are now disappointed in his alleged behavior.
Monique Wright-Williams had always forbidden her three girls from watching hip-hop music videos because of the way they portray women as "hoochies or sex objects," she said.
"I don't ever want them to think of themselves as a sex object," she told ABCNews.com.
The music of Chris Brown, though, was different. Marketed as more of a Jonas Brother than a Lil Wayne, Brown won the approval of both mother and daughters. Wright-Williams' oldest daughter, Solange, a 17-year-old college freshman, plastered her room with pictures of the R&B singer and affectionately referred to him as her "husband."
So when the Syracuse, N.Y., family learned that Brown had been arrested last week for allegedly beating his pop-star girlfriend Rihanna, the news came as a shock. "I'm obviously disappointed," Wright-Williams, a youth services agency director, said. "He was in a good position to serve so many young black children well. Whenever anybody who is in a good position to have a nice impact on my children, and children in general, tumbles and falls in such an important way, it's here we go again." Perhaps. The fall of a teen idol is familiar territory. But the swift and critical public response to Brown's arrest from the Williams family and other members of the black community has come as something of a surprise to some people.
Gayle King, editorial director at O, The Oprah Magazine, rejected Brown's recent apology in which he said in a statement that he was "sorry and saddened" and "seeking the counseling of my pastor, my mother and other loved ones." "Right now, I can't think of anything that makes me support anything that Chris Brown is saying at this time," King told the entertainment news show "Extra" Sunday. "And my heart just aches for Rihanna."
At first, "Hustle and Flow" star Terrence Howard came out in support of Brown, saying, "It's just life, man. Chris is a great guy. He'll be all right. And Rihanna knows he loves her, you know? They'll be all right."
Support for Rihanna
The actor later retracted his remarks, calling them "insensitive." And, apparently, Brown's troubles hit close to home for Howard. According to the Smoking Gun, police and court records show that Howard was arrested for a similar but previously unreported alleged assult on his estranged wife. Howard pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. Kanye West told Ryan Seacrest last week, "I was completely devastated by the concept of what I heard. ... I feel like that's my baby sis. I would do any and everything to help her in any situation." Rap mogul Jay-Z, who discovered and mentored Rihanna, reportedly "hit the roof" when he heard about the alleged fight, according to Us Weekly magazine. "Just imagine it being your sister or mom, and then think about how we should talk about that," Jay-Z said of Rihanna. "I just think we should all support her. She's going through a tough time. You have to realize she's a young girl, as well. She's very young."
And it's not just African-American celebrities who are outraged. Actress Rosanne Barr lashed out at Brown on her blog Monday.
"Chris Brown's lies and excuses make me want to beat the crap out of him," Barr wrote. "You dirty bastard. I hope you go to prison for 10 years."
Reaction Good for Black Community?
The criticism, especially from the hip-hop community, comes as a welcome surprise to black writer and NPR analyst Juan Williams (no relation to Wright-Williams).
"Thank God people aren't making excuses for his behavior," Williams said. "There have been lots of occasions where people would say 'Boys will be boys' or 'This is about their relationship.' Instead, I read Jay-Z feels fatherly toward Rihanna and is not going to be any friend to Chris Brown in the future. That's the kind of responsible behavior we want from black men toward each other, that being abusive to a woman will not to be tolerated. And it doesn't have to be only when [Don] Imus says something." Williams, who, like comedian-author Bill Cosby, champions more personal responsibility from African-Americans, sees a growing shift in the black community's willingness to talk publicly about once taboo subjects of violence, abuse and the sexual exploitation of women.
Appalled and Disgusted at Chris Brown Abuse Allegations
"Think back to when the film 'The Color Purple' came out," Williams said of the movie that portrayed a black woman abused and oppressed by her father and husband. "A lot of [black] people called it a put down of black men."Now people are like, 'Hey, wait a minute, Chris Brown can't do that.' That 's a big shift, finally." It's a shift that appears to be filtering down to the newest generation of black children. Wright-Williams said her middle daughter, Imani, 15, was "completely appalled" when she heard the story. "She was just disgusted," said Wright-Williams, who has always told her girls that if a boy lays a hand on them to tell their father. "She said she didn't know why he would hit her, what would it make it OK. She has the notion that no one would ever hit her [Imani] because she would break them in half. " Kuae Kelch Mattox was surprised that her 9-year-old son Cole's third-grade classmates were all aware of Brown's arrest. "They are obviously plugged into the news of what happens with these celebrities," the Montclair, N.J., stay-at-home mom said.
Her message to them: "Let's withhold judgment until we hear the whole story. He's innocent until proven guilty." Her son, Cole, has already changed his opinion, though. "I never heard anything bad about him," he said. "After hearing about this story, Chris Brown isn't any better than Lil Wayne. Now they are both practically bad guys. If he's actually proven guilty, he should actually go to jail and no one should ever listen to his music." Antona Smith, a St. Louis stay-at-home mother, believes some of the focus should be on Rihanna as well. "She has to heal. She definitely needs to go to counseling," she said. "I hope the music industry, especially hip-hop, will look at some of the messages they send out about men and women. They are not the only young couple dealing with domestic violence and control. There's a great opportunity here to talk about this."
Author Rebecca Walker, who writes a blog for TheRoot.com, agreed that the focus should be on domestic abuse.
"I am more disappointed by the response to the incident than the incident itself," she told ABCNews.com. "It should be used as an opportunity to discuss violence in general, and domestic violence in particular. It's a good place to begin a conversation about how love shouldn't hurt, and how victims of abuse themselves often become abusers if they don't get proper support.
"Ultimately, this issue transcends gender, race, class, etc.," she said. "This is about relationships and what healthy ones look like. It's about intimacy and how little we, as a culture, know about cultivating and maintaining it. It's about love, what it is, and what it isn't."
Rihanna Likely to Speak Out
Rihanna's father, Ronald Fenty, told People magazine that he expects his daughter to address the issue. "At some point, she will speak out," he said. "I hope she will stand up for women all over the world." As for Brown's salvaging his once clean-cut image and role model status, Wright-Williams said, "I think he could still be a role model for 'I totally messed up and I will never be accused of this again.' Or he could be found guilty and be the model of what you don't want: You hit women, you get arrested and lose endorsements. "Thank God we're not hinging on Chris Brown for our one and only role model," she said. "We can easily turn to our new president."