The changes were announced by the department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, which is halting a years-long effort begun in the previous administration to investigate and publicize the shortcomings of police departments.
Within the Justice Department, the civil rights division has for decades conducted "pattern or practice'' probes of troubled police departments to determine whether there are systemic problems that require a court-appointed monitor to correct. In recent years, however, the COPS office had gradually expanded to do something similar, issuing public reports about problems it found in individual departments.
On Friday, the Justice Department signaled that it will leave such work to the civil rights division and that the COPS office would return to its roots — advising police departments on best practices, offering training and becoming more collaborative.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the move "a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support."
Sessions has said he aims to put the Justice Department on a more pro-police footing. Last month, he reversed an Obama administration move to restrict shipments of military surplus gear to police departments, saying in a speech that "the previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too 'militarized' than they were about our safety."
The attorney general has also argued against actions that hurt police officers' morale. "We cannot let the politicians, as they sometimes do, run down police and communities that are suffering, only to see crime spike in those communities," he said this summer.
Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division who now works as president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the decision is "another indication of the full retreat from police reform by Jeff Sessions.''
The collaborative effort, Gupta said, "had buy-in from a lot of police chiefs'' because it was a less intrusive process than a pattern or practice probe.
Proponents of the Obama administration's approach had argued that some departments have problems that can be fixed without the intervention of court orders and that the COPS office played a valuable role in finding such problems and recommending solutions.
Under the new model, the COPS office would not conduct the kind of investigation or issue the kind of report it did last year in San Francisco after angry protests of fatal shootings by officers.
The decision affects about 14 police departments nationwide that had either begun receiving public reports from the COPS office or expected to receive such reports soon.