NORTHUMBRIA police has become the first force in the region to volunteer officers to trial controversial electronic stun guns.

The force says it recognises the importance of providing armed officers with as "wide a range of weaponry as possible" including less lethal options.

A number of policemen and women are now expected to take part in so-called handling trials of the new weapon which start next month.

The Home Office has written to forces across the country inviting volunteers for the trials.

The trials under controlled conditions will involve the shooting of dummy targets with the guns, known as Tasers.

They emit a high voltage electronic shock capable of temporarily paralysing offenders causing them to drop any weapons they may be carrying.

Chief Superintendent Bob Patterson, head of operational support at Northumbria police, said: "We've volunteered officers to take part in controlled trials being held at police research establishments.

"The results from these trials will then be reported to the police authority."

He added that "less lethal options" such as Tasers were preferred in some incidents over real ammunition.

Other forces in the region are monitoring developments and could now follow Northumbria's lead.

The Home Office's police scientific development branch says a 12 month testing programme of the device which resembles an ordinary pistol has begun.

It will include extensive test firings to establish accuracy and effectiveness. Some forces such as the Metropolitan Police had wanted Tasers to be available to officers by the end of the year.

But the introduction of the guns which would need final approval from individual chief constables is still thought to be a long way off.

Civil rights' groups such as Amnesty International have expressed concern about Tasers.

But police say they could provide a safe option to tackling a rising number of incidents in which officers are confronted by offenders carrying swords or knives.

The importance of finding a non-lethal alternative to guns has been highlighted in a number of recent incidents across the country.

These have included the shooting dead of mentally ill Andrew Kernan, from Liverpool, who ignored calls to drop a samurai sword he was brandishing.

Updated : 14:23, 20/12/01