Some senior police officers are bringing back targets to try to avoid deciding crime-fighting policies, Home Secretary Theresa May has said.
She told the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales that the government had scrapped "top-down diktats" and urged police confidence.
Targets were "making a comeback... as a security blanket" for police, she said.
Ms May also rejected concerns that front-line policing had been cut to "dangerously low levels".
Speaking to 250 senior leaders from across the service at the conference in Warwickshire, she said the government had removed the bureaucracy that had previously "turned police officers into form-fillers rather than crime fighters".
"It's down to you to decide what crime-fighting policies you're going to follow," she said.
"And yet I have noticed that targets have been making a comeback in many forces.
"Those targets certainly aren't coming from me, and they aren't being used to increase the effectiveness of policing.
"Their main function seems to be to act as a security blanket for senior officers - a way to avoid taking responsibility for the decisions they have to make.
"I am not saying that most or even many of you have responded in that way. But some of you have. And none of you should."
'Model public service'
She told the officers it was "essential" they had confidence to take responsibility for their own decisions and "not to try to hide behind an old process or procedure" which enabled them "to evade responsibility".
Ms May also had praise for the police, saying the service had "cut crime with fewer officers and lower budgets".
"You are doing more with less," she said. "That makes you the model public service in the era of budget cuts."
Earlier, PSAEW president Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis had said that "front-line policing is being cut to dangerously low levels".
As of March this year, there were 129,584 police officers in England and Wales - which is the lowest level since March 2002, and 12,000 lower than the peak just before the general election in 2010.
Ms May said, though, that "the proportion of officers on the front line has increased from 89% in March 2010 to 91% in March 2013".
The PSAEW represents around 1,300 superintendents and chief superintendents in England and Wales.