A Waikato gang leader says his gang really is trying to transform people's lives, despite Police Association claims that its new image is just "a recruiting tool".

Waikato Mongrel Mob Kingdom chapter president Sonny Fatupaito says comments at the Police Association conference by Detective Sergeant Ray Sunkel, head of the police motorcycle gang unit, were "offensive".

Sunkel said the Mob was evolving, but not at a rapid pace. What had changed was gangs using social media to try and convince the public they were doing "good".

Some fed children in poor areas, others held charity boxing matches or teamed up with district health boards to work with the sick and impoverished.

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But Sunkel said it was just a cover - they were still gangs deeply embedded in the criminal world.

Detective Sergeant Ray Sunkel said gang initiatives such as a health event and guarding mosques were
Detective Sergeant Ray Sunkel said gang initiatives such as a health event and guarding mosques were "a recruiting tool". Photo / File

"It is a recruiting tool," he said.

Sunkel said people were starting to see gangs as "just nice guys", and urged police to "push back".

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Fatupaito said Sunkel's comments, echoed by Police Association president Chris Cahill, were offensive and promoted "racial threat theories or minority group threat theories".

"They are envious of our success. The very fact that the Kingdom came in and did more in less time makes people now question why the Government took so long and did so little."

Fatupaito said Cahill and Sunkel did not seem to understand a 2012 Whānau Ora crime prevention strategy aimed at reducing the number of Māori entering and re-entering the criminal justice system.

"Taking people out of their families to fix them and then putting them back doesn't work, especially when the family is a gang," he said.

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Sonny Fatupaito addressed students at Canterbury University last month. Photo / Katie Harris
Sonny Fatupaito addressed students at Canterbury University last month. Photo / Katie Harris

"They want to reform the gang members so that they leave the gang, but we have made transformative and intergenerational changes for our people not the Government, not the Minister of Police and definitely not the Police Association.

"Our Kingdom Whānau have responded to the inter-generational effects of the racism, bias, abuse and colonisation that the justice system has created, enabled and continues to deliver almost 200 years since the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

"Just as Dame Tariana Turia has always said, 'We need to use our collective genius to ensure communities are empowered to develop local solutions to local problems'. The core to Whānau Ora - that whānau are empowered to know that they hold the solutions to any challenges that face them."

Former Waikato District Health Board "change agent" Carol Serra, who engaged with the Kingdom chapter to organise a "Hearty Hauora" health event in 2017, said the chapter represented a hard-to-reach group that was scared to engage with doctors and the health system.

"We had women coming forward who were eligible for free mammograms who had never had a mammogram," she said.

"Breaking down that fear that they had was transformational for some of their members."

She said she was not under any illusion that everyone in the gang was "lily-white".

"What I'm saying is, you have to still be prepared to go, okay, we'll take this man at his word and we'll give him a chance because I believe that he and his leadership believe in this change and are wanting this change and are driving this change for this chapter," Serra said.

"It's the cultural change for a better lifestyle, for a positive contribution to the community, for being educated, for being employed without nefarious activity."

Fatupaito's Hamilton-based Kingdom chapter split from the Mongrel Mob's national organisation two years ago. Members guarded the Hamilton mosque after the Christchurch terrorist attacks in March, and recently announced plans to set up a women's branch.

However Cahill said Fatupaito "could provide better outcomes for the whole community by ensuring his members stop peddling methamphetamine, hand in their guns and denounce violence".

"Sonny Fatupaito is the same person who stated the Mongrel Mob will not give up its illegal guns after he Christchurch attacks," he said.

"A clear commitment to give up their firearms would be a much more powerful message of change, than what many see as a publicity-stunt offer to protect mosques."

Cahill said it was "an insult to Māori" to suggest the criticism of the Mob was racially based.

"The Mongrel Mob does not represent Māori and it is the Mob that has to prove it is stepping back from violence, and selling poison to the most deprived communities of New Zealand."