Founded thirty years prior to when the story is set, Precrime is a system dedicated to apprehending and detaining people before they have the opportunity to commit a given crime. This method has replaced the traditional system of discovering a crime and its perpetrator(s) after the crime has already been committed, then issuing punishment after the fact. As Witwer says early on in the story, "punishment was never much of a deterrent and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead". Unlike the film adaptation, the story version of Precrime does not deal solely with cases of murder, but all crimes. As Commissioner John A. Anderton (the founder of Precrime) states, "Precrime has cut down felonies by 99.8%."
Three mutants, known as "precogs", have precognitive abilities by which they can see up to two weeks into the future. The precogs are strapped into machines, nonsensically babbling as a computer listens and converts this gibberish into predictions of the future. This information is then transcribed onto conventional punch cards which are ejected into various coded slots: when cards are produced, they appear simultaneously at Precrime and the army headquarters, in order to prevent systemic corruption.
Precogs are mutants, identified talents further developed in a government-operated training school — for example, one precog was initially diagnosed as "a hydrocephalic idiot" but the precog talent was found under layers of damaged brain tissue. The precogs are kept in rigid position by metal bands, clamps and wiring, strapping them into special high-backed chairs. Their physical needs are taken care of automatically and Anderton claims that they have no spiritual needs. Their physical appearance is distorted from an ordinary human, with enlarged heads and wasted bodies. Precogs are "deformed" and "retarded" as "the talent absorbs everything"; "the esp-lobe shrivels the balance of the frontal area". They do not understand their predictions; only through technological and mechanical aid can their nonsense be unravelled. The data produced does not always pertain to crime or murder, but this information is then passed on to other agencies.
Majority and minority reports
Each of the three precogs generates its own report or prediction. The reports of all the precogs are analyzed by a computer and, if these reports differ from one another, the computer identifies the two reports with the greatest overlap and produces a majority report, taking this as the accurate prediction of the future. But the existence of majority reports implies the existence of a minority report. In the story, Precrime Police Commissioner John A. Anderton believes that the prediction that he will commit a murder has been generated as a majority report. He sets out to find the minority report, which would give him an alternate future.
However, as Anderton finds out, sometimes all three reports differ quite significantly, and there may be no majority report, even though two reports may have had enough in common for the computer to link them as such. In the storyline, all of the reports about Anderton differ because they predict events occurring sequentially, and thus each is a minority report. Anderton's situation is explained to be unique because he, as Police Commissioner, received notice of the precogs' predictions, allowing him to change his mind and invalidate earlier precog predictions.
Multiple time paths
The existence of three apparent minority reports suggests the possibility of three future time paths, all existing simultaneously, any of which an individual could choose to follow or be sent along following an enticement (as in Anderton's being told he was going to murder an unknown man). In this way, the time-paths overlap, and the future of one is able to affect the past of another. It is in this way that the story weaves a complicated web of crossing time paths and makes a linear journey for Anderton harder to identify. It is the theory of multiple-futures which allows the precogs of Precrime to be of benefit, because if only one time-path existed, the predictions of the precogs would be worthless, since no possibility would exist of altering the future. Precrime is based on the notion that once one unpleasant future pathway is identified, an alternative, better one can be created with the arrest of the intended perpetrator.
Police Commissioner John A. Anderton
John A. Anderton is the protagonist of The Minority Report. At first, he is highly insecure, suspicious of those closest to him - his wife, his assistant Witwer. He has complete faith in the Precrime system and its authority over individuals and their freedom of choice. The poor living condition of the precogs and the imprisonment of would-be criminals are necessary consequences for the greater good of a safe society. When his own autonomy comes under attack, Anderton retains this faith and convinces himself that the system has somehow been corrupted. At first, when his wife suggests, “Perhaps a lot of people in the camps are like you.’ ‘No,’ Anderton insisted. But he was beginning to feel uneasy about it too. ‘I was in a position to see the card, to get a look at the report. That’s what did it.’ ‘But – ’ Lisa gestured significantly. ‘Perhaps all of them would have acted that way. We could have told them the truth.’ ‘It would have been far too great a risk,’ he answered stubbornly” (Ch.7). When later asked, “Which means more to you – your own personal safety or the existence of the system?’ ‘My safety,’ Anderton answered, without hesitation. ‘If the system can survive only by imprisoning innocent people, then it deserves to be destroyed. My personal safety is important because I’m a human being” (Ch.7). Anderton struggles to find an appropriate balance between Precrime authority and individual liberty. Ultimately, Anderton decides to kill Leopold Kaplan in order to affirm the majority report and thereby preserve the validity of the Precrime system. In doing so, he is himself liberated from society in exile and recovers his self-confidence. Anderton has arguably lost some of his humanity in becoming a murderer, yet he has regained a sense of superiority over both his wife and Witwer.